By Monica Roldan, MSW, LCSW
Monica Roldan, MSW, LCSW is Vice President, Critical Therapy Center. Ms. Roldan is a psychotherapist licensed in New York and New Jersey. Roldan currently works with women diagnosed with breast cancer providing counseling. Throughout her career, Roldan focused her efforts on working with Latina victims and survivors of domestic violence by providing counseling, community education and group facilitation.
A native of Colombia, with a psychology degree from the Pontificia Universidad de Colombia, Roldan worked in women’s prisons in Bogotá, where she carried out diverse activities with the inmates including: psycho-educational workshops on self-help, self-esteem, women’s rights, domestic violence and mental health. Roldan graduated from New York University with a master’s in social work (MSW). She served as a Field Instructor at Columbia University of Social Work and presented on social work and immigration issues at the National Association of Social Workers.
Q. Ms. Roldan, your organizations help Latinas who have suffered partner violence. How does Hispanic culture impact the way they may react to their situation? For example, does religion play a part? I think our culture impacts in a lot of ways victims of domestic violence:
ONE — Religion plays a major role.The majority of Latinas are religious.Most of the clients that we see are either Christian or Catholics. For these clients divorce is not an option. Although, they might be suffering or they might be abused they feel that is their duty to stay in the marriage. Sometimes, we see women going to ask for advice from their priest or other religious leader who often tells them, that as women they have a duty to stay in the marriage because with God’s help things will get better. In reality, as we know, things get worse, as sometimes violence can end up in death. So, they can be killed by their husbands.
TWO — “What people would say?” This is still a strong component of our culture. People stay married or in relationships just because they are afraid of what people would say if they know that they are victims of violence, or what they would say about them if they got divorce. Divorce, I think is a huge issue for a lot of people in our culture Many people will stay married just because they don’t want to go through the shame of having being divorced and far less the shame of being victims of domestic violence.
THREE — “Marianismo” is a characteristic that I have seen in many Latinas. It is the belief that women as wives have to suffer. Marianismo is an aspect of the female gender role in the machismo folk culture of Latin American. It is the veneration for feminine virtues like purity, moral strength, etc. It represents the “virgin” aspect of the virgin-whore dichotomy. In a lot of our communities women are expected to suffer their husband’s abusive treatment in silence and are expected to bear the suffering with dignity.
FOUR — A Lack of English: A lot of Latinas do not know English so it is really difficult for them to ask for help or to know where to go when they are being abused.
FIVE — A Fear of authorities and some agencies: (ACS/Immigration/Police): When women come to this country, the first fear that abusers place in women is deportation or the removal of their kids.
SIX — A lack of understanding about the culture here in the United States and knowing that partner violence is taken seriously here: For some Latinas who are new to this country the little information that they do have about this country and how it works is through their abusers. A lot of times abusers will know more English and they are the ones giving the information to the women about the police or other systems. They use this as another form of control, so, they will control all the information their partners have.
SEVEN — A lack of knowledge about the systems here in the United States: Some of the Latinas do not know how the systems work here. The experience that Latinas have about the police in their countries, for example, is completely different than the systems here in the US.
Q. How willing are Latinas to go to the police for help?
Often they are very reluctant to call the police. For two reasons specifically fear and lack of knowledge. It may be that they are undocumented, or do not understand that they are documented (because of misinformation by the batterer), so they fear deportation. Also, Latina mothers often fear that their kids will be removed by the authorities because of domestic violence. The second reason is the lack of knowledge and information: they do not know that actually the police are here to help them. In a lot of cases, as I mentioned before, the police in our countries don’t work the same way that they do here and batterers work hard to keep victims in the dark, so they don’t know police will help them. Most of them do not even know that domestic violence is a crime. Women, do not know their rights or the resources they have available when they are victims of domestic violence.
Q. Have you noticed, for example, that some of the male partners of abused women have more English skills than their girlfriends and wives and therefore may mislead the women about their chances of getting any help?
Yes, that usually happens. Women, will have all the information through their partners who often have more English skills. Therefore, they use this as an opportunity to exert more power and control over their victims. I had a case in which the woman didn’t know a word in English and her partner always threatened her by saying that the police will deport her at any time if she talks with them about what is going on. He even said, that he can ask the police to deport her at any time. One time, he approached one police officer to talk with him (I am sure, to talk about things that were not important) and said to my client: See, I can talk with the police and I can tell them that you are lying and that you are illegal here, so, they can deport you. To this day, she has never talked with the police and is still always afraid to even look at them.
Q. What are some of the issues that prevent abused women from getting help? Is there a trust in the system or lack of awareness of the services that are available?
I think both. They really don’t know how the systems work here in the US. They do not know that there are shelters available for them, or that the police can help and that the abusers can be arrested for this crime, or that actually domestic violence is a crime. They do not know how public assistance works or ACS. In some of our countries, we do not have shelters or the help that women can get when they report abuse is minimal, so, they just don’t know what they can do or how to ask for help. Although, more recently there have been talks about building domestic violence shelters in countries such as Colombia.
Q. Have you found abuse in women who have been “trafficked” to this country? Or have you found that women who have arrived in the U.S. have been abused before they came here?
BOTH! I have cases, in which women have been abused even before they came to this country, or they were abused when they were crossing the border and after they’ve been here. We are seeing more and more cases of women being trafficked to this country and actually being trafficked from state to state, some in forced labor, others forced into sex trafficking.
When women are victims of human trafficking, most of them are subject to domestic violence. The psychological consequences of trafficking and domestic violence are very similar. These women have high levels of anxiety, they use minimization or denial, some of them have a flattened affect, memory loss, depression, dissociation, post traumatic stress disorder, it is hard for them to trust service providers or authorities, or trust anyone, they feel ashamed and sometimes they use drugs or alcohol to cope with the emotional of physical pain they have.
Q. What can social workers like you do to help these women?
As social workers, we must be aware of domestic violence and its far-reaching consequences. As Latina social workers, we must always keep in mind that domestic violence is a reality that affects our community. A lot of Latinas are ashamed to even talk about this, so, as social workers we need to be able to assess each particular situation, each woman’s story and ask question and give information. Information, as we say here at Sanctuary is power. If we give power to women, they will be able to make their own decisions.
Another thing that we social workers can do, is do outreach, talk about this issue in our communities, with our people. With women, but also with men. We must raise awareness. We need to let them know that there are laws, services that are available for victims and that the law will punish abusers. Even if their partners are undocumented or they don’t know English, they can ask for help. In NYC they need to know, that the police are not immigration services. So, again, even if they are undocumented, they can talk with the police, they can ask for help and they are not going to be deported. We also need to teach men and women how to have healthy relationships, free of violence.
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