Issues,  Legal Practice,  work life

Addressing Sexual Assault within the Latino Community through a Legal Perspective

One of the things that’s so powerful about having a J.D. is that we can become true agents of change. Of course, any individual with the vision and drive can create change in their community, but as attorneys, we are given a little extra ammunition by way of our legal abilities. My hope is that we always remember this and try our best to continue to improve everyone’s standard of living. Because April is Sexual Awareness Month, I think it’s vital to talk about what we can do as attorneys to help fight this problem.

In the article I wrote for Being Latino, I mention that one in six Latinas will report a sexual assault in their lifetime. Because of the type of law I practice, I see this demographic pass through my office almost every day. The ramifications are long-lasting and the lack of protection, prosecution, and services available to survivors is infuriating. On top of the lack of care, sex assault survivors have to deal with the horrible blame and shaming that’s placed on them. It’s a horrible situation where a person is victimized and then blamed for another’s criminal behavior. For example, when my car was stolen in 2012, the police never asked me why I had left my parked car unattended to in the middle of the night, but you can bet some of my clients have been asked why they were out so late the night of their assaults.
But before I launch into a diatribe re: victim blaming (because I know no one wants to read that), let me jump to my real point.

latinas and sexual assault

Again, 1 in 6 Latinas report a sexual assault as either children or adults.  The vast majority of offenders are family members or someone that’s known to the survivors. This crime adds to the drop-out problem Latinas face; it increases our need for mental health services; and is a huge toll on the economy. On top of all that, what does it say about our priorities and our the family values we hold so dear within the Latino community when our women (along with men and boys that are too scared to report) seem to suffer so much?

What can attorneys do to combat this problem?

One. Represent survivors. The beauty of a law degree is that it’s versatile. Maybe you practice in Real Estate, and seem far away from being able to represent crime victims.  But the reality is that you can likely find a local agency that has pro bono projects where you can help survivors apply for certain forms of relief (maybe even your own firm has pro bono work available). Working in legal aid, I know the difference volunteer attorneys can make in ensuring that those seeking legal relief are afforded capable representation.

Two. Educate informally.  I’m all about pushing back against unfair customs and norms that create a double standard against women. You can push for progress just within your own family or social circles by calling out misconceptions (i.e. women lie about their sexual assaults) or problematic language. It can be hard to do because people become defensive when they’re called out on their actions, but if you’re willing to start the discussion, it can really improve people’s thoughts and behaviors. Further, while you don’t have to be an attorney to educate informally, as attorneys we’re trained to handle potentially adverse conversations while remaining cool and calm. Maintaining control of these conversations can make the difference between being happily greeted at family events versus everyone groaning when you show up–the point here is that you should speak up when you can, but also choose your battles wisely.

Three. Question the current system. What are the statistics on sexual assault like in your area? What are the conviction/prosecution rates? Are law enforcement agencies taking these assaults seriously? If the rate of prosecution isn’t very high, what are the political leaders doing to change this hesitation? At the end of the day, it’s not enough for our community leaders (most of which are elected) to acknowledge that this high rate of victimization is a problem, but rather–what are they doing to address it? As attorneys, we have a little more power to hold people accountable because we understand the law and process better than lay people. We should hold those in power to a higher standard as well.  Just as important, if you question what the situation is like in your community and it’s not up to standard–consider running for office (we shouldn’t forget that this is always a very viable possibility for many Latinas).