Four Years After #MeToo, We Need a Movement Led by Women of the Global South

Around the world and within the U.S., women workers are some of the most marginalized women in the world. Too many still can’t share their #MeToo stories out of fear.

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Jeyasre Kathiravel, a young Dalit woman who worked at a garment factory in South India, was murdered by her supervisor after facing months of sexual harassment. (Global Labor Justice, International Labor Rights Forum)

There was a narrow hallway at my old job where my manager would stand, arms folded, and wait for female employees to walk by. For those of us who were undocumented, this hallway was a gauntlet of unwanted physical contact. I didn’t want to speak up. Getting this fast-food job without a valid ID was hard enough, and there was always the threat of deportation.

It’s been four years since #MeToo went viral. While the movement has shaken Hollywood, some corporations and certain political circles by holding a few harassers and rapists accountable and forcing leaders into important conversations about sexual violence, many of the most marginalized women still can’t share their #MeToo stories for fear of retribution.

When I got the opportunity, I left the fast-food industry for an office job where I never experienced harassment (though I was still paid less than my male counterparts). While that’s not the case for all office jobs, I certainly felt safer than before, especially once I received DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an immigration policy granting temporary deferred action from deportation. Today, I’m the executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, where we’re organizing to win a pathway to citizenship and advocating for the rights of undocumented immigrant communities. One of the reasons I do this work is so that no one has to fear walking down the hallway at their job.

However, this isn’t only an undocumented women’s issue. I recently learned about Jeyasre Kathiravel, a young Dalit woman who worked at a garment factory in South India and was murdered by her supervisor after facing months of sexual harassment. After Jeyasre’s murder, 25 other women from the same factory came forward with reports of gender-based violence and harassment.

Her murder and the outpouring of reports that followed sparked the launch of #JusticeForJeyasre, a campaign to hold global fashion brands accountable for the gender-based violence and harassment occurring in their factories. When the campaign organized a speaking tour that came to Arizona, I met Thivya Rakini, president of Jeyasre’s union, the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union (TTCU). She shared Jeyasre’s story and how caste-based discrimination made Jeyasre a target for harassment. Thivya also shared how Jeyasre worked in the factory in order to fund her college education so she could become the first in her family to have a life outside of the garment industry, and how she organized with her union to try and make her workplace better for all of the women garment workers.

Jeyasre worked in the factory in order to fund her college education so she could become the first in her family to have a life outside of the garment industry. … She organized with her union to try and make her workplace better for all of the women garment workers.

There’s power in reclaiming your story, and the #MeToo movement gave an important platform to women who survived harassment and abuse. Unfortunately, we can only tell some women’s #MeToo stories after it’s too late. If we’re going to realize the promise of the #MeToo movement for all women, we need to start with addressing the immigration, caste and other systems that harassers and abusers use to exert power over women.

I saw so much of myself in Jeyasre’s story, even though we’re from opposite ends of the world. We were both trapped in systems that only cared about the profit we could make for them. Our wellbeing, our safety, and our dignity didn’t factor into their quarterly revenue reports, so they let business continue as usual.

I also saw a shared rejection of this status quo and a shared commitment to organizing for change. Just as Dreamers like myself have come together to form a powerful political force for immigration reform, the women of TTCU have organized fearlessly to stand up to multinational brands and their suppliers. Regardless of how enormous of a problem as gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace is, there are very concrete steps that can be won to take away tools of suppression like the threat of deportation or unequal treatment under the law for Dalit women that are used to harass and to silence.

Undocumented women in the fast-food industry need a pathway to citizenship so they can report and organize against harassment without fear of deportation. Democrats have held leaders in their own party accountable for sexual harassment and forced them to resign. But when they have an opportunity to grant millions of immigrants citizenship, just like they had in the most recent infrastructure bill, they repeatedly deprioritize and fail our community.

Unfortunately, we can only tell some women’s #MeToo stories after it’s too late. If we’re going to realize the promise of the #MeToo movement for all women, we need to start with addressing the immigration, caste and other systems that harassers and abusers use to exert power over women.

Dalit women in the garment industry need global brands to reverse incentives in their supply chains that create conditions for gender-based violence and harassment in their factories and they need to take responsibility when it happens and use their enormous financial leverage to stop it. These brands make stated commitments to gender equality and safe working conditions but continue to profit from working with suppliers that keep costs low by coercing workers into producing high volumes of clothing for very low wages.

Whether it’s in our immigration system or our fashion supply chain, we need to fundamentally shift the balance of patriarchal power in our societies. Ensuring that all women can tell their #MeToo stories and end gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace means taking away the weapons that employers use against us: threats of deportation, caste-based discrimination and more. It’s past time congressional leaders and global fashion brands took action to make that a reality. From Phoenix to Tamil Nadu, we’re organizing to make sure they do.

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About

Karina Ruiz is the executive director at The Arizona Dream Act Coalition, a DACA recipient from Mexico residing in Phoenix. She has a B.S. in biochemistry from Arizona State University. She is the mother of three U.S. citizens and grandmother of three U.S. citizens.