Things quickly got weird for Daniela Contreras at her after-school babysitting job when her boss came out of the bathroom one afternoon nearly two decades ago.
At that time, the Brooklyn resident was 16 and working one of her first regular jobs. But she grew uncomfortable at work after just a few weeks. The father of the 2-year-old she sat was increasingly giving her a troubling type of attention. Several times he had asked her to bring him a towel while he bathed, and now he was naked and coming at her.
“As kids we don’t really see anybody naked. So I was 16 and seeing this man naked,” Contreras said in an interview. “And then he tried to rape me.”
The little boy watched as she fought his father off and ran out the door. But that was only the first part of this shocking experience, she said.
“It’s frustration, not knowing where to go. Who do you talk to? Who do you share your story with?” Contreras said.
She had never dealt with such a situation before, but she would again before too long. Domestic work was relatively easy to find for a teenage Mexican immigrant who was still learning English, and she wanted to help her mother pay the bills.
She kept the story to herself for years, but then she found the best way to confront the haunting experience was to speak out publicly – and more and more immigrant, low-wage and working-class women in New York are coming forward with similar stories.
The #MeToo phenomenon has powered a surge in recent weeks of women reaching out about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. As they seek counseling, legal advice and political empowerment, the New York nonprofit sector has stepped in to address the needs of low-income women who have kept abuse to themselves up to now.
“We’ve absolutely seen a surge,” said Alanna Kaufmann, a New York City attorney who represents women pro bono. “It’s two-fold. I would say there is an increase in women that are coming to us generally, and perhaps more significantly we’ve seen an increase in women willing to go public.”
The New York City Human Rights Commission – which can fine sexual harassment offenders – has 123 active claims of sexual harassment, 14 more than the previous two years combined, a spokesperson told NYN Media.
Nonprofit representatives spoke up on behalf of such women at a Dec. 6 commission forum about sexual harassment in the workplace. The event attracted a slate of nonprofit leaders who spoke of their efforts to encourage women to come forward. They often have to choose what type of treatment they can and cannot tolerate, especially since their lack of legal immigration status, education, ethnicity and other issues limit their work opportunities, according to Dina Bakst, co-founder of legal nonprofit A Better Balance.
“We hear every day on our free legal aid hotline from low-income women about harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” Bakst told the commission. “We need to rethink what retaliation means and affirmatively prevent and secure the safety of working women.”
Among the women who spoke out on Dec. 6 were two organizers from the National Domestic Workers Alliance – one of whom was Contreras. Over the years she has quit at least four jobs because of what she described as sexual harassment and assault. After fleeing, she said she had felt the same sense of despair and shame as other women who spoke at the forum – and like them she was no longer a victim. She had become a professional advocate who had helped 500 women in the previous two years.
“By me sharing my stories, they’re more open and more prone to tell me what they’re going through at work,” Contreras said.
The process from assault to recovery can take years, but the state in the meantime has increased its investments in nonprofits that serve women victimized by assault and harassment. In 2010, New York became the first state in the nation to implement a domestic workers’ bill of rights, which included provisions to prevent sexual harassment. Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced $6.5 million in new funding to combat sexual assault across the state through counseling, advocacy and therapy.
One woman, around 40, said she came forward to her employer, who still hadn’t paid her for two weeks of work after several years. She was “still traumatized, visibly shaken, still mistrustful,” said Marrisa Senteno, an NDWA organizer.
“She ... experienced harassment, stood up for herself, was then threatened with death, threatened by the spouse to the point that she fled,” Senteno added.
And the first person she was willing to speak to was Contreras.
Contreras says the biggest step in helping victims is relatively simple compared with the long processes of recovery and holding attackers legally responsible. Like other women across the country, the #MeToo phenomenon has catalyzed a feedback loop that has yet to diminish.
Once Contreras heard other women speak up, she decided to speak about her own experiences publicly at the recent forum. She then posted about the event on Facebook and received a comment the next day from a friend who had something to say.
“Me too,” she wrote to Contreras, “Can I talk to you about it?”