Bold Moves to End Sexual Violence: Self-Defense and Self-Empowerment for Women Workers

Ms. is a proud media sponsor of the 2018 National Sexual Assault Conference, co-hosted by the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. This year’s NSAC theme is “Bold Moves: Ending Sexual Violence in One Generation.” Leading up to the event, we’ll be posting pieces by presenters and major speakers highlighting their plans to make those moves right here on the Ms. blog. Click the banner image above or this link for more Bold Moves posts.

Yo soy alguien. I am somebody.

At the first anti-sexual violence program designed by and for janitors who clean high rises and office buildings throughout California, 20 female janitors repeat the phrase and proudly proclaim that yes, they are somebody. Yes, they matter.

For some, it is their first time considering this idea.

Workers at a “Justice for Janitors” march. (SEIU / Creative Commons)

Ya Basta! Coalition instructors empower women. Our classes are more about self-exploration and building self-confidence than they are about the physical defense of your person. For four hours, we carefully take women through a journey of healing and empowerment. This special investment of time and resources is critical because we find that most of the women who participate have never had the time or the space to think about their emotional wellbeing, their physical body and the pain they carry.

The reality is that no one will denounce abuse at work if they don’t believe they are worth more than the violent acts they absorb.

The women we work with have all experienced different levels of abuse, and many have deeply internalized it to the point of acceptance. Often, they adopt the dominant paradigm and blame themselves for the rape, assault, harassment and bullying that they experienced. The shame is overwhelming. The fear of being shunned drives women to bury the pain as deep as they can in their soul.

Even the fiercest, most confident worker warriors who have led fights for better wages, healthcare and safe working conditions find it too uncomfortable to talk about sexual violence. To reach these strong and hurting women, we have to change their normal way of thinking.

During class, we work to respectfully deconstruct the socialization we experience growing up in a Latino culture in countries that promote spoken and unspoken violence against women. We lovingly attempt to create space between the pain and shame they feel and the ideas at the root of those emotions. We talk about our shared culture and experiences immigrant women in the janitorial industry and build a community of trust.

Our hope is that they consider the perspective that none of the abuse of their person is their fault. There are monumental forces that indoctrinate women, even girls, to a submissive, marginalized role that strips us of our voice.

Through meditation and affirmation, the women in our classes begin to realize that they don’t have to carry the burden around with them alone anymore. They have the power to free themselves and denounce their abusers. Their pathway to healing begins once they can consider it is not their fault.

After the meditation, we strive to create an outlet for the women in our classes. ¡Yo soy alguien! Say it louder. Only after a psychological breakthrough does the physical release begin.

For the last hour, the women practice how to punch, kick and jab to protect themselves from potential attackers. They channel their pain, anger, and rage into a positive outcome—understanding the principles of self-defense. So much anger comes from feeling powerless. The self-defense training gives them power. The power to change your life, your workplace and the way you understand the world.

After class, women tell us that they wish they had the class sooner, that all of what we said is true, that it is what they experienced and they believed it. Often women struggle with feelings of guilt and resentment, as most have raised children and passed on violent traditions of marginalizing womenNow that we have seen this consistent pattern, we incorporate a message of empathy and compassion. We should not be judged for error when we knew no other way.

The power we teach goes far beyond self-defense. Our instructors are “promotoras”—women leaders who have been trained as community-based educators and are leading the fight to end violence in the janitorial industry. They have transformed their pain into power and are reaching out to their coworkers to invite them to embark on this journey and stand up against sexual violence in their workplaces.

We are creating an army of women—a support network committed to reaching as many female janitors as possible. As each women connects with her power, she will be prepared to denounce her abusers in a self-empowering way.

We want as many workers to transform their profound pain into a courageous, bold, proud light that celebrates the powerful person they actually are. And as we go from training to training, we’re making that internal shift one worker at a time.


Lilia García-Brower is the Executive Director of the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, a California statewide watchdog organization whose mission is to abolish illegal and unfair business practices in the janitorial industry. She is also a proud founding member of the Ya Basta! Coalition which brings worker advocates and anti-sexual violence advocates together to end violence at work.