Review of O’Brien’s “We Should Stop Putting Women in Jail for Anything”

By Gargi Padki 


In Patricia O’Brien’s article, We Should Stop Putting Women in Jail for Anything, she advocates for the abolition of women’s prisons by arguing that female offenders are better served by alternatives to incarceration programs. Additionally, their imprisonment poses specific problems to their communities and to their own recovery. O’Brien points to the fact that a mere 7% of the current prison population is female, and this number comes after a 646% increase in female incarceration over the past 30 years. There were 15,118 women in prison in 1980, but 112,797 women were jailed in 2010.

At first glance, it could appear that O’Brien’s argument advocates gender exclusivity. In reality, O’Brien highlights how the glaring failures of the American prison industrial complex specifically impact women. Although she could expand her argument to include men, she focuses on breaking the cycle of criminalization that disempowers women.

The majority of incarcerated women are found guilty of prostitution, drug possession and distribution, drug abuse, or property crimes–all non-violent crimes. The bulk of these women have histories of violent trauma and addiction. Many of them are responsible for the lives of children. Central to O’Brien’s argument is the belief that losing a woman to jail impacts a community differently than losing a man does. O’Brien contends that if women were systematically empowered and given the opportunity to become economically independent, they would be better able to serve their communities and their families.

O’Brien calls for the abolition of female imprisonment because the prison system is ineffective at rehabilitation. Alternatives to incarceration are shown to have beneficial long-term effects on women’s wellbeing. O’Brien proposes enlightened alternatives to incarceration that work with the inmate, providing services including addiction counseling and trauma therapy. Programs such as Women In Recovery in Oklahoma provide comprehensive mental health services to trauma survivors.

Increasing access to mental health services and connecting survivors to counseling is the most effective way to deter women from committing crimes in the future. Harm reduction programs help people understand their own patterns and behaviors, allowing them to regain control of their lives. The ability to make decisions for oneself is novel for trauma survivors. Empowering women by recognizing and validating their trauma can radically shift their perspectives and allow them to take back power in their lives.

The United States prison industrial complex needs to make a cultural shift and come to respect rehabilitation as an effective form of combating violence. O’Brien argues that the rehabilitation model has improved the lives of many women and should be put into practice on a large scale. Starting with non-violent female offenders, we can shift to a more empathetic and trauma-sensitive model of rehabilitative criminal justice.

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An Open Letter to Debbie Peagler

By Gargi Padki


Debbie Peagler, a survivor of domestic violence, was convicted of second degree murder in 1983 after setting up her abuser to be jumped by two known gang members. She spent over twenty-six years in jail for her crime, and was given compassionate release by the State of California after being diagnosed with cancer. She spent the last few months of her life sharing her story, working to increase awareness about state legislation that takes survivor trauma into account when sentencing women for committing violent crimes against an abuser. The law is designed to assess violent histories and tendencies, and lawyers can submit evidence on behalf of a defendant or an already incarcerated person to decrease jail time or release a prisoner. The law recognizes the effects of battering on survivors and is an effort by the State of California to lesson the prison population. Other states are in the process of adopting more compassionate legislation that validates survivor narratives.


Dear Ms. Peagler,

I’m having a lot of difficulty starting this letter to you. I would like to begin with an apology: I’m sorry that you went to such great lengths to protect yourself from Oliver, I’m sorry that you felt so unprotected and desperate for relief, and I’m sorry that your case was not initially investigated further. I feel thankful that there was new legislation in California that shortened your sentence by recognizing the years of abuse Oliver perpetrated towards you, but I also know that it was not passed until you had already served nineteen years, thirteen of which could have been spent free.

I wonder what type of intervention could have prevented your relationship with Oliver from escalating to such a violent end. Maybe if you had been educated on the types of abuse and the patterns, behaviors, and tactics abusers employ to control their intimate partner, you would have sought help earlier. I believe that if more people learned about the telltale signs of abuse, the initial courtship, the secrecy and constancy of the violence, and the pathological fear that forces survivors to hide the abuse, then we could successfully recognize and intervene to help survivors escape or deescalate violent confrontations with their batterers. By the time that cops are called, the intervention is usually far too late. The underlying psychological abuse, which escalated to visible scars and bruises, makes the survivor feel completely unable to live without her intimate partner.

I wonder why the police failed to protect you. Oliver was released after one night in jail. Do you think that if Oliver had been incarcerated for longer that you would not have reached for such violent means of protecting yourself from him? If Oliver had been imprisoned for longer do you think you would not have felt the need to set him up to be attacked? I have a different opinion than you: I do not believe that you should have set Oliver up to be jumped. But I believe that Oliver would have killed you if he had the opportunity. If society recognized that battering can be and often is lethal, then we would impose stricter regulations on sentencing known batterers and become more vigilant of violent patterns of behavior.

The difficulty is that people are not so different now than they were when your case was prosecuted. We still tend to put the burden of leaving on the survivors. We want to minimize and deny the violence so we can continue to be permissive of a culture of violence. It is easier to turn a blind eye than to be vigilant and support women who are being battered. I know many women who have similar stories of getting caught up with men at a very young age. They do not understand the severity of the violence and do not understand the depths to which an abuser will go to control his or her intimate partner. In abusive relationships, there is also a tendency for survivors to want, hope, and trust that their batterers will change. I can imagine that you must have believed Oliver out of desperation.

There have been legislative steps in the right direction: Survivor defendants are now afforded more compassion by some state legislatures. There are pushes to investigate abusive relationships that lead women to committing violent crimes. We are learning to trust and validate a survivor’s narrative. But so often our instincts turn towards blaming or distrusting women when they do speak up about mistreatment. If we can remain free from judgment about their actions, more women will feel safe speaking out against battering. That will help empower them to end the cycle of violence that can so often govern their own lives.


Gargi Padki


To learn more about Debbie Peagler’s story, check out “Crime After Crime: The Battle to Free Debbie Peagler,” a documentary released in 2010.

For more information on domestic violence, come to the Project Speak Up Speak Out recruitment session on November 3rd at 6:30 pm in Shepard Hall, room 350.

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Call for All Students – SUSO Information and Recruitment Session

Hello fellow students,

My name is Esraa Saleh and I am this year’s project coordinator at Project Speak Up Speak Out, a peer education group on campus that seeks to break the silence behind gender-based violence. We are an organization of student educators that works on three fronts — first, to facilitate monthly free trainings open for all students and colleagues who seek to increase their awareness about the complexities of gender-based violence; second, to provide resources for more information and to be a bridge for further resources off-campus; and lastly, to provide a comfortable confidential safe space for all genders.

Wether you are aspiring to enter the field of social work and gender justice, want to become an advocate, or are looking just to further your understanding of the dimensions of gender-based violence, please stop by Project Speak Up Speak Out’s Information and Recruitment Session on Monday, November 3rd at 6:30 in Shepherd 350.

Please feel free to come introduce yourself, as well as learn more about our organization and what you can do to get involved. Food and drinks will be provided!


Esraa Saleh

Project Coordinator of Project Speak Up Speak Out

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Women in the Workplace Part II: The Mommy Penalty

By Isabel Jenkins

In the United States today, over forty percent of mothers are the primary breadwinners in their families, reports the White House. But with outdated policies and sexist corporations dominating the workplace, moms have a long way to go before they see true professional equality. The US is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave, and our country’s problem with working moms runs deep. As I recently covered in a blogpost for Re:Gender, the mommy penalty hits low income workers particularly hard.

A Demos study shows that only 17 percent of New York’s full-time retail workers and 10 percent of part-time workers had a fixed work schedule in 2012. Unpredictable work schedules negatively impact weekly income, making it difficult for mothers to work full-time and support a family. For women with children (36 percent of women in retail are moms, says Demos), inflexible or unpredictable shifts means choosing between getting the kids to school and getting to work on time. Some workers may be disqualified from receiving public benefits if they don’t work the required number of hours, making a steady full-time schedule vital to upholding other daily needs. Demos reports that less than half of retail workers receive any paid sick days, doubtlessly contributing to the White House statistic that a third of workers have passed up a job because it conflicted with family. Finally, women going to school in the hopes of attaining an education and thus a higher position at work are limited by constantly changing shifts. Escaping poverty is difficult if workers have no access to earning the necessary degrees for more secure and lucrative employment.

In 2014, the American Sociological Review published a study suggesting that men were more likely to work overtime than women. In fact, researchers believe that as much as ten percent of the gender wage gap is due to this disparity in hours. Some might see this as fodder for the argument that the gender wage gap is due to plain ole difference in work ethic. But in reality, many women’s jobs don’t end when they clock out. A study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that American women put in four additional hours of work at home a day, while men put in between two and a half and three hours. As is expected, unpaid homework often involves childcare. Many women are required, or expected, to be at home to do unpaid domestic work. This severely cuts down the amount of time mothers are available for paid work. Single, low-wage mothers are thus faced with the choice of making more money or being home while their children are awake.

The tipped minimum wage presents an additional set of obstacles for mothers of all colors and classes. Women make up 74 percent of workers in tipped professions, including waitressing, bartending and hairdressing, reports the White House. Half of tipped workers are at least 30 years old and one in seven receive food stamps, dispelling the myth that only high schoolers and college students work tipped jobs. Federal law allows employers to pay the hourly minimum of $2.13 to all employees who regularly receive tips for their services, as long as, when combined, their tips and tipped minimum wage add up to $7.25 an hour. If they don’t, the employer is required to make up the difference, which doesn’t always happen, according to the White House report linked above. Unfortunately, one in ten workers in tipped-wage jobs report receiving less than the federal minimum wage, even with their tips included.

According to Restaurant Opportunities Council United (ROCUnited), year-round tipped employees earning $8.75 an hour (the median wage for these workers) only make about $18,200 a year. This is well under the poverty threshold for a family of four, considering the living wage for a family of four in the US varies from about $17 to $22 an hour state-to-state. A ROCUnited report revealed another unsurprising fact: mothers (specifically in the restaurant industry) spend 35% of their weekly wages on their children.

Mothers of color are at a heightened risk of poverty. In states where the local government hasn’t raised the tipped minimum wage, like Texas and New Jersey, workers of color are two times more likely to live in poverty than the rest of the population. That means one in four people of color in tipped occupations face poverty every day, compared to 16 percent of white employees and 20 percent of workers overall.

In some cases, women are discriminated against before they are even officially mothers. The Demos study discussed earlier in this post takes a close look at retail superstore Walmart, already known for discriminating against its female workers. Researchers found that the corporation refused to provide appropriate accommodations for pregnant employees. Expecting mothers reported being forced to climb ladders or carry heavy boxes, threatened with unpaid sick leave if they refused. For women preparing to support an additional life, time off work isn’t financially feasible. So when does an unfair work practice become a life-threatening one?

But there’s good news: In March of this year, Walmart acknowledged a lawsuit filed by its workers concerning the violation of pregnant employees’ rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. It issued a new policy that provided reasonable accommodations for expecting mothers. On July 16th, Employment Opportunity Commission announced that it would be updating its rules regarding treatment of pregnant workers for the first time in 30 years. The new guidelines establish that the Americans with Disabilities Act does apply to pregnant employees, meaning that discrimination against workers that have been or could become pregnant is illegal. This not only represents an important step forward for women in the workplace, but it also means that fewer babies will be born to recently-fired or underpaid mothers, which can only improve the quality of life for the next generation.

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Ending Campus Sexual Assault with Safety, Consent and Respect

By Isabel Jenkins

This Sunday, Miss Nevada Nia Sanchez was awarded the Miss USA pageant title. During the question-and-answer segment of the contest, Sanchez was asked about the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. The 24-year old, a holder of a fourth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, responded, “More awareness is very important so that women can learn to protect themselves.”

I see where Miss Nevada is coming from. In a country where at least 1 in 4 women experience sexual assault during an academic career, it’d be wonderful if colleges offered self-defense classes for credit. But they don’t, and more importantly, they shouldn’t have to. Which is why I find Sanchez’s attempt to empower women to be troublesome.

I could pay hundreds of dollars for self-defense classes (assuming I have this privilege) and wear my black belt to every party I attend from now till graduation. That still wouldn’t get to the root of the problem: that college students are not properly addressing safety, respect and consent. And deflecting the responsibility to women only addresses half the question, because rape culture permits us to ignore men in conversations about violence against women.

“Rape culture” itself is a touchy topic. Whether or not you believe in its existence doesn’t change the facts. Despite journalists who call rape culture “a panic where paranoia, censorship and false accusations flourish,” campus sexual assault is real, it affects men and women, and it needs to be addressed as a serious security threat on college campuses in America. As woman in my 20s, I know at least a handful of women who have been sexually assaulted on a college campus, and I don’t think I’m unique. Do you live on a college campus? Have you ever seen a student, at a party or elsewhere, force him or herself sexually on another student? I know I’m not talking statistics here, but this stuff feels like common sense at this point.

At least 80% of sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance, and 48.8% of college women whose experiences fit the criteria for rape don’t consider those experiences “rape.” These statistics indicate how deeply ingrained violence against women is in college culture. A student who tries to force his intoxicated female friend into a sexual act can pass it off as a drunken mistake or a misunderstanding. This casual perspective on rape is what makes frat parties potentially dangerous places for women, but it also influences women to brush assault off. It’s not as real if it was that guy from your Stats class, just like it’s not as real if you can’t remember the whole thing. It’s not as real if he walked you home after, it’s not as real if your friends interrupted it before it went too far. Once again, the responsibility to deal with rape culture falls in the laps of college women. It’s our job to rationalize, to get over it, to forgive him because he’s really a cool guy when he’s not drunk! When almost half of college women who have been assaulted don’t recognize they’ve been assaulted (or, more probably, feel pressure to pretend it didn’t feel like assault), it’s time to change the narrative on consent.

Men are oppressed by rape culture too. 4% of college-aged men report surviving rape, but considering the stigma we hold about rape and our conception of masculinity (being strong, being tough, being hard), men are far less likely to report rape than women. Men are also the survivors of rape, and varying degrees of sexual violence, in our college community. Arousal doesn’t mean consent. Damaging assumptions make college campuses unsafe for everyone.

Survivors of sexual assault on campus experience another obstacle: they usually have to continue going to school with their rapists. In cases where a college does not properly handle reports of sexual assault, a practice that has been normalized and validated by campus administrators across the country, survivors are forced to live in fear or leave school on their own accord. The power and control dynamic of a nonconsensual experience can leave a person living in fear. Maybe you’ll have to see each other in class, maybe around campus, maybe at the next party. People and places on campus become triggers for painful memories of the assault. Maybe the rapist is a member of student government, or maybe the rapist is your girlfriend, but either way there’s a chance he or she might live down the hall from you.How can you feel safe enough to go about your daily life at school, let alone learn?

And that’s how one “drunk misunderstanding” can effectively destroy a person’s entire academic career at a particular institution.

Some students have taken the law into their own hands when faced with unresponsive sexual assault policies, but even well-meaning student-led tactics can turn into opportunities for misinformation and panic. What we need are better policies, better access to mental health services on campus, and increased awareness of what rape really is. We need more men to understand their role in rape culture and how they can be allies to women on campus. Maybe we also need self-defense classes, like Miss Nevada recommends, but do we really want to live in a world where we condone criminal acts because they’re “inevitable”? What if we taught college men that they are responsible for their actions, no matter how drunk they are or how much pressure they’re getting from their friends? What if we encouraged men and women to be strong together, teaching and learning from each other, instead of asking women to take self-defense classes against nameless, faceless classmates?

Campus sexual assault has the potential to destroy four years of personal growth and development. Because every person has the right to feel safe at college, let’s work together to change conversations about responsibility and consent.


Check out these organizations that are helping to end campus sexual assault and find out how you can get involved at your institution:

Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER)

American Association of University Women (AAUW)

Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN)

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Fear and Loathing in Islam

By Gargi Padki

John Stewart interviews Malala on The Daily Show

Malala Yousafzai was interviewed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart during her trip to the United States in October of 2013. She spoke beautifully on human nature and the value of education, and she demonstrated the power of speaking out against oppression. When Malala was fifteen, she was sitting on a school bus waiting to go home when a Talib boarded the bus and shot her three times, once in the head. The brutal assassination attempt was meant to quiet her public outcries against the banning of girls from schools in Swat Valley, her homeland in Afghanistan. Since the attempt at her life, Malala has become an incredibly vocal proponent of equal access to education for women and girls. Malala is now sixteen years old, and has grown up under Taliban rule for the past eight years. She has watched men abuse power and destroy her village and her way of life.

Malala was born into the Muslim faith. It is all she knows by way of religion. She believes in the tenets of Islam, and she worships and prays in mosques alongside her family, friends, and peers. She shares the religion of the men who have placed a fatwa (a bounty) on her head. A young revolutionary, she is working in far more perilous conditions than most Western activists, and is working with a lot of compassion and sincerity. She is a wildly different image of a Muslim woman than we are ever shown in Western media. Her father, a Muslim man, supports and protects her, and is a brave man who stands in the face of Taliban rule and encourages his daughter to go to school. Enlightened men, fathers and brothers, exist throughout Islam, and they are working to do the best they can for the women in their family.

In Western media, portrayals of Muslim men and women are incredibly severe. “Muslim men are polygamous (read polygynous) and abusive, and Muslim women are veiled, shackled, and secluded” (Hasan 58). Americans are taught to hate Islam in order to gain support for the two invasions and occupations, both illegal under international law, that our nation is fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. The West has used Islamophobia as a tool for justifying new cruelties in warfare since the year 622, when Europeans began wars against Islam. “European powers have found it convenient to portray Islam and Muslims in the worst possible light”, and this fear of Islam allows us to hate Islam without understanding how our hatred is deeply rooted in justifying war (Hasan 57). Modern examples of cruel warfare are drone and chemical warfare – technologies that allow us to blindly decimate a population, and has “other-ed” Muslims so much that we fear them and are unwilling or unable to see their humanity.

The Western media selectively depicts the most oppressive aspects of Taliban rule in Afghanistan to scare us into thinking that all Muslims are hateful of the West, technology, and equality. Yet in those same borders live men who are challenging Taliban authority and risking their lives everyday for the sake of their wives, mothers, and daughters. We demonize and simplify the worst, most extreme, violent, and oppressive regimes in the Middle East and say that those men are “obeying” Islam, but to say that we must hate Islam because of those few thousand men is to be blind. Malala recognizes that these men are not using, but are indeed abusing Islam to assert domination over her village. She tells us a story about when the Taliban destroyed an electricity generator in her village, an act that left hundreds without water during the sacred month of Ramadan, and how she detests them for abusing the word of the Prophet to justify their actions.

The use of religion to oppress women and control their bodies is hardly a new concept. Society, including the West, has been villainizing and cursing women since conception. When Adam and Eve fell from the Garden of Eden, Adam and all men after him were punished with the burden of having women gnarling at their heels, and women were cursed with having menstrual cramps and painful childbirth. Christianity tells women that the natural and miraculous process of child bearing, labor, and delivery is inherently evil and is a punishment. De Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex that “thus humanity is male and man defines woman as not in herself but as relative to him,” and that to be a man is the default, anything less than is a failure. De Beauvoir asserts that as early as in Ancient Greece, Plato thanked the gods for not making him a woman, because to be woman was inherently lacking and defective.

Everywhere around the world women are oppressed and religion is used as the justification for violence because it is easy to claim that men are exerting authority given to them by a higher power. Hindu men used to burn women in a pyre when they became widows, saying that she must live and die for her husband, a barbaric practice known as sati. Even though it was awful, it does not make sense to say that all Hindus are evil. The implementation of Hindu practices differs, and it is always the decision of the follower to choose peace or violence. Hinduism does not need to be demonized in America. This is why many Americans might never know about sati — the United States does not need to fear monger Americans against Hinduism. But the United States will use any tool at its disposal in order to remain in control of the oil rich Middle East.

Hatred of Islam is not going to help resolve the very real oppression that Malala and thousands of girls like her live with under Taliban rule. In order to help girls and women educate themselves in Afghanistan, we cannot force our values and religion on them. We must instead understand and respect Malala’s religion, listen to her requests, and help her achieve her goals from her perspective. We must understand that the violent images we are fed of Afghan men are what the powerful Western media wants us to see. Within Afghanistan, people are working to put an end to the inequalities and violence perpetrated by a very small portion of the Muslim population.

We must also realize the full extent to which other-ing leads to violence. Drone warfare allows a soldier to sit in a secure facility in a desert in the Southwest United States, without any physical threat, and kill a man riding a jeep in Afghanistan, which might as well be a million miles away. Drone warfare distances soldiers from combat and therefore calls into question the ethics of killing and what it means to serve in the American military. Drone warfare also “emphasizes the disparity in power between the parties and reinforces popular support for the terrorists,” and as more Afghan people live in fear of missiles coming out of thin air, destroying their homes, and killing their families, they become tacit supporters of extremism in the region (Bowden). Other-ing of Islam, and the hatred of Muslims allow Americans to see drone warfare as a justifiable act of war without giving concern to the power of the military. We become blind to the incredible power our government holds and content when we kill men thousands of miles away like they were characters in a video game.

The other-ing of Muslim people has allowed for the United States military to justify drone warfare, and that there are a lot of parallels between using Islam to justify violence and using fear of Islam to justify violence. Both require the oppressive party to dehumanize the other, and though there is a lot of violence against women that exists in a lot of Muslim countries, and though it would be foolish to deny that, it would be detrimental and contradictory to the progress of women and girls to say that Islam is the root of the violence.



Hasan, M. (2012). Feminism as Islamophobia: A review of misogyny charges against islam. Intellectual Discourse20(1), 55-78.

Bowden, M. (2013, August 18). The killing machines. Retrieved from

Yousafzai, M. (2013, October 08). Interview by JS Stewart [Video Tape Recording]. I am Malala, New York, NY. Retrieved from—malala-yousafzai-extended-interview-pt–1

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Welcome Esraa Saleh as SUSO’s New Community Engagement Fellow!

We are pleased to announce that our very own Esraa Saleh will be succeeding the wonderful Gargi Padki as Project Speak Up Speak Out’s Community Engagement Fellow this fall!

Ms. Saleh is an Algerian-American living in Harlem and is in her last year at City College. She is a B.A candidate in Political Science and International Studies, with a concentration in International Relations, and minors in Women’s Studies. Ms. Saleh works at the Office of Student Life and Leadership Development and is the 2014-2015 President for the Student Association for International Studies. She also is the co-founder and former President of the Middle Eastern and North African Union.

Ms. Saleh has an academic interest in gender and post-colonial politics in North Africa and also gender-based dynamics in the Harlem community. She is determined to collaborate with men and women towards shedding light on gender issues that are misunderstood. She largely emphasizes the importance of shared participation and responsibility in facing gender based discrimination and encourages the role of men in women’s struggles. Ms. Saleh believes that in order for us to world globally, we need to work locally.

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Immigration Options for Survivors of Gender-Based Violence

By Ilana Gelb

Between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. every year, reports the Department of Homeland Security. Even when some of the victims are freed or released, their fate remains uncertain.

Many victims are not given adequate support or rehabilitation services, and some are criminalized as prostitutes. Others are deported. As many trafficking victims come from instability and poverty at home, deportation can perpetuate the root causes of trafficking. For human trafficking victims wishing to remain in the United States, there are options for temporary visas, specific to trafficking victims. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reports that victims of “rape, murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, sexual assault, and many others” may also be eligible for immigration support.

There are two main visas for trafficking victims. There is the T-Visa for victims to remain in the United States to assist with prosecuting traffickers, and the U Visa, which allows victims of certain crimes, including trafficking, to remain in the United States.

According to USCIS, the T-Visa is for nonimmigrant victims of human trafficking who are able to assist in an “investigation or prosecution of human trafficking. Victims of trafficking in the United States, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, or at a point of entry due to trafficking” are eligible. Additionally, one must “comply with any reasonable request from a law enforcement agency for assistance in the investigation,” unless one is unable to assist due to minor status or psychological or physical trauma. Lastly, to be eligible one must demonstrate that he or she would “suffer extreme hardship involving unusual or severe harm if removed form the United States.”

U Visas are given to victims of crimes in the United States who are non-citizens. This visa gives victims of certain crimes temporary legal status in the US. Immigrants with this visa have eligibility to work. The visa can last up to 4 years. Family members can be included in this visa.

If survivors of human trafficking wish to remain in the United States for a longer period of time, they can potentially apply for asylum. To be eligible for asylum, one must be physically present in the United States and have suffered persecution or fear based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  One can also apply for standard citizenship.

Other victims of gender-based violence may be vulnerable to deportation as well if they speak up about the abuse. Victims of domestic violence who are immigrants married to U.S. Citizens may feel unable to leave the relationship due to fear of deportation. Every person in the U.S. is entitled to protection by the police, regardless of immigration status.

It is possible to get a divorce and maintain legal immigration status in the United States in order to leave an abusive home. A victim of domestic violence can apply for legal immigration status for themselves and their children. This application is kept confidential; not even a family member will be told of the application. Female victims of abuse can apply for immigration through self-petitions for legal status under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA provides money for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. It sets standards for those convicted. If a woman is at risk of being deported for leaving her abusive husband, she can apply for cancellation of removal under VAWA under the grounds that the relationship was abusive. Additionally, male and female victims of domestic violence can apply for U-nonimmigrant status.

Domestic violence and human trafficking victims have resources to maintain or achieve legal status in the United States. Although there are many other boundaries, victims of gender-based violence are not bound to stay in abusive situations because of immigration uncertainty.

Some organizations that provide support for victims of human trafficking and domestic violence seeking legal immigration status in the United States include:



New York, New York



American Immigration Lawyers Association

Washington, DC



American Bar Association

Chicago, IL and Washington DC



Immigrant Women & Children Project

City Bar Justice Center



Safe Horizon: Immigration Law Project


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Enough is Enough: Cultural Defense of Domestic Abuse

By Rabiyatou Valian

Gargi Padki and Rabiyatou Valian attend a New York Asian Women Center event

Gargi Padki and Rabiyatou Valian attend an event with the Korean American Family Service Center at Queensboro Hall.

My close friend is in an abusive marriage, but she refuses to speak out against her husband’s violence. I always wonder why she doesn’t do anything to end it.

When I voice my concerns, she tells me “I am African and we don’t do things like that. Europeans take their husbands to the police; a real born African woman will never do such thing.”

There you have it. “We are Africans” has repeatedly been used as an excuse not to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. It is a disturbing reality that culture takes precedence over basic human rights. The value of human life is priceless, and it should not be undermined by the pervasive rhetoric of culture, religion and tradition. Whether we are African, Asian, American or European, we deserve to be treated with honor and respect by our significant others.

For a long time, silence has been used as a weapon to perpetrate domestic and sexual violence in traditional communities. Batterers and families of domestic violence survivors use the cultural defense to perpetuate violence against women in their communities. They insist that in their native lands, beating women was commonplace and didn’t require law enforcement or any intervention outside of the home. Women in these communities expect that their daughters, sisters, sisters-in-law, and all other women will not speak up about the violence because it is common. Domestic violence is viewed as a part and parcel of marriage.

Himani Bannerji, a Bengali-Canadian writer and philosopher, explains the cultural defense of domestic abuse in her introduction of Returning the Gaze. She argues that the change has to start at the roots of a community and diffuse outward until society is totally reformed. Equality can’t simply be instated from an outside force.

“Our struggle is for a fundamental change in social relationships rather than for a per community quota of representations in the parliament of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicities’. We are engaged in politics, linking theories with practices, examining ideologies through our lives, and our lives through revolutionary ideas. We are not shopping in the market of cultural differences,” she writes.

In the case of my friend, she has been forced to believe that she has no voice because she is her husband’s property. In other words, he can do whatever he wants to her, including battering her.

I used to believe this too, until I started volunteering for Project Speak Up, Speak Out (SUSO). The program focuses on breaking the silence that allows domestic violence to continue within all communities. From the trainings, I learned that because I have been silent about my friend’s violent relationship, I too am complacent to the violence. I now believe that that we all have a moral responsibility to speak up on behalf of battered loved ones who feel trapped. They need to know that their voices can be heard.

Finding a voice can be difficult for immigrant women in the United States. For many battered immigrant African women, like my friend, their husbands physically, emotionally, and economically abuse them. These men often intimidate their wives by using citizenship and residency privilege to stop them from revealing their abuse to anyone. These women are often isolated by the language barrier, causing them to feel trapped in their abusive marriages. Women who are experiencing abuse and are concerned about their abusive partners threatening their immigration statuses should know about Visa options, such as the Battered Spouse Waiver, the U-Visa, and other protections covered in the Violence Against Women Act. These options have been put into place to protect undocumented women.

There are many non-profit organizations like SUSO that are actively involved in raising awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault against immigrant women. The Korean American Family Service Center and the Sauti Yetu Center for African Woman and Families are community-based organizations that work to create a violence-free society. These organizations believe in a world where people hold human life over social constructions like religion and tradition. They provide these services through counseling, education, and advocacy programs for both individuals and families.

At SUSO, we do not accept the cultural defense. We expect that women will advocate for their families and loved ones who are in violent relationships. All of us are common at our core, and no one deserves to live in fear of an abusive partner.

My friend may not know how to use her voice now, but I have found mine. I intend to use my voice to inspire my friend, and to make sure every survivor of domestic violence knows that she is not alone.

If you need immediate shelter support or other immigration services, check out the New York Asian Women Center here.


Bannerji, Himani. 1993. “Returning the Gaze: An Introduction,” in Returning the Gaze. Toronto: Sister Vision, p.xxix

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Women in the Workplace Part 1: Sex-Segmented Labor

By Isabel Jenkins

“On average, full-time working women earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.”

Many Americans, especially feminists, are familiar with this statistic. But what most don’t understand is that the gender gap in the workplace isn’t just about unequal pay.

A focus on the numerical wage gap ignores the many other obstacles blocking women from equality in the workplace. The circumstances that influence a woman’s decision to enter a certain profession—and how she’s treated after she has the job—say much more about the state of the American workplace than a simple wage gap statistic does.

The gender wage gap has lowered by 17% in the 50 years since the passage of The Equal Pay Act, reports the National Equal Pay Task Force. Compared to women’s 59.8% of men’s pay in 1963, 77% today is doubtlessly an improvement. But a more important issue lies in the division of jobs available to men and women, not in the disparity between pay for equal jobs. The Huffington Post reports that women make up two-thirds of low-wage workers and only 14.6% of the top earning positions at Fortune 500 companies.

Women demonstrate interest in fields like early childhood education, social work, and visual and performing arts beginning in their college years, reports Christina Hoff Sommers in a well researched but poorly informed article published by The Daily Beast. She points to the fact that engineering majors in college tend to be from 72% (chemical engineering) to 97% (naval architecture and marine engineering) male dominated as proof that “the sexes, taken as a group, are somewhat different”.

Positions in early childhood education and social work yield on average $36,000 to $39,000 a year, whereas petroleum engineering positions boast $80,000 to $120,000 salaries, the article reports. The first implication here: America doesn’t value mental health and family stability the same way it values commercial development. The second implication: Women are entering professions that pay significantly less than jobs held by men. Sommers concludes, “Much of the wage gap can be explained away by simply taking account of college majors. In the pursuit of happiness, men and women appear to take different paths.”

She’s onto something… But this disparity of interest in professions is not as organic as she makes it sound. The sexes are different, but it’s unclear where this difference starts. Do preferences for the “caring professions” begin to form in girls while they’re still in utero? Or do they take root after birth, when girls are showered with baby dolls and child-sized plastic kitchens?

If boys and girls are socialized differently starting in early childhood, it’s highly possible that their career preferences later in life result from this socialization. This process creates sex-segmented labor, or professions that are dominated by one sex. Stereotypical ideas of nurses and doctors, or secretaries and CEOs, highlight how implicit the gender gap is in our understanding of the professional world. Because men traditionally tend towards certain types of jobs and women towards others, it can be difficult to accept exceptions to these social rules (the word “murse” used to describe a “male nurse”, for example). And because typically male dominated jobs, like engineering, are higher-paying than female dominated jobs, like teaching, the gender wage gap widens.

Women are just as capable of succeeding in male-dominated professions as men are. Contrary to Summor’s belief that men and women are inherently suited to different professions, a Cornell University study found that gender differences in math and science proficiency are negligible. The real determining factor is confidence, and studies show that boys are culturally taught to be more confident in math than girls are.

In the classroom, girls are more likely than boys to double- and triple-check their answers before speaking in front of a class, reports a study conducted by University of Georgia psychologist Martha Carr. Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to compete—“being first” presides over “being right”. This confident speed, dubbed “math fluency”, helps boys to do well as math classes become harder. Girls fall behind simply because they don’t trust their abilities.

In 1983, there were 13 boys to every girl in America who scored in the top one in 10,000 in mathematics. By 2007, this ratio had shrunk to approximately 3 boys for every girl. “If the difference were just in the genome, there would not be that improvement,” Beth Azar wrote in her review of the study for the American Psychological Association. Scientists credit the increase in female math achievers to changing social norms that encourage girls to take higher-level math classes in high school. A confident push could be all it takes to encourage girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Today, women earn 48% of bachelors’ degrees in math, says Hyde. If women are just as capable as men are intellectually, why aren’t high-paying STEM professions more gender equal? Hyde blames the corporate culture of math-centered professions, specifically engineering, for catering to the documented male interest in “things” as opposed to “people”. In purposely presenting the image of STEM careers as purely technical, with no interpersonal element, corporate culture makes sure women think twice about applying.

Organizations nationwide are fighting to reverse this trend by showing girls and women that STEM careers are not only just available to them, but that they are also exciting and satisfying professions. The Institution of Education Sciences has a downloadable guide available to teachers that aims to interest girls in math and science in the classroom. Goldiblox encourages young girls to play with “construction toys” as an alternative to traditionally “girly” toys, hoping to engage girls in math and science before they can be socialized to dislike it. Their first commercial was a hit because of its unconventional message about what it means to be a girl.

In encouraging girls from an early age to feel confident in their abilities in math, science, and beyond, we as a society can make the dream of higher-paying professions a reality for women. Although this only addresses a fraction of the gender gap in the workplace, it’s a wonderful place to start.

Sex-segmented labor, sexual harassment, discrimination against mothers—these factors critically influence where women work and how much they make. “Sex-Segmented Labor” is the first post of a trilogy that will unpack the myth of the gender wage gap to reveal the real inequalities for working women.

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