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New Study Shows Central American Women Escaping Violence Experience More Trauma After Seeking Asylum

A recently released report shows the reality of why many woman from Central American countries are fleeing. The data outlines a rising number of women are trying to escape sexual and domestic violence in their home countries. Conducted with researchers from St. Edwards University and Casa de Esperanza, a federal resource center for Latinas and Latin@ communities to end domestic violence, the report provides evidence on why women are facing these circumstances and what can be done to help.

In the last decade there has been an increase in the arrival of Latina immigrant women and their children from primarily Central American Countries.

The report shows that many women’s motivations to migrate and experiences during migration are often tied to violence, whether it be sexual or domestic. The majority have come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras which are among the most dangerous places in the world for females.

They are also home to some of the world’s highest murder rates, that includes for women and young girls. Making matters worse is there are few consequences for perpetrators in those areas.

Dr. Laurie Cook, an assistant professor and social researcher at St. Edward’s University, interviewed hundreds of women after they were detained by immigration authorities for the report. Cook says these women are fleeing for many reasons but a majority is due to increasing violence in their home countries.

“Women are seeing more violence, whether it be domestic or sexual. We’ve heard from women that gang violence in the streets might be used against them by their own partners,” Cook said. “These issues go back a long time and for many, migration is only option they may have to survive. This violence is being used to control people.”

Many of these women and children know the risks that come with migrating. But they are left with little alternatives back home.

Many women know the dangers that lie ahead when attempting to migrate from Central America to the United States. There are countless stories and reports of sexual violence in caravan groups, yet that risk is worth escaping their lives back home.

“We hear from women they know the danger they face and its a known risk,” Cook said. “Migrating is the only choice, they know the risk of sexual violence, trafficking, those are possible risks so they still do it. there is no alternative.”

Even when some do reach the U.S. and seek asylum, the violence doesn’t end there.

In the last two years, the U.S .government apprehended more than 150,000 immigrant family units, primarily Central American women traveling with their children, according to the report. This huge influx has spiked the number of people being detained and kept in detention centers along the Southern U.S. border.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is currently detaining more than 50,000 immigrants at any given time. While the majority of detainees are men, the percentage of asylum-seeking women and girls, is rising.

According to Cook, the conditions and traumatic effects of detaining immigrants can damage mental health and cause post-traumatic stress. These effects can last years and even cause a lifetime of mental issues.

“Short or long term detention leaves a mark on their lives. The longer in detention means longer impact,” Cook said. “These places are clearly not a shelter, they’re more of a jail for families.”

The conditions in detention centers are alarming as many women have reported being sexually abused while being held. Cook notes there is relatively little accountability when it comes to these cases being reported which speaks to the overall culture and system within detention centers.

“Women movement is very restrictive and we hear reports of poor quality food and lack of services to legal help which leads to inconsistencies with what they’re being told,” Cook said. “There is a constant level of fear they face that includes cases of physical abuse, sexual abuse that are detrimental to their well being.”

What’s being done to help improve these conditions?

Cook says that there a better alternatives for women and children instead of being held in these detention centers. She recommends community based organizations like shelters that can better serve women and children. These centers would cost less and be more humane for women and children.

“The evidence is there and it shows that these practices are harmful to children and families. Community based centers are better alternatives and they insure that asylum seekers have access to information about their rights and immigration process,” Cook said. ‘ The fact is they’re just looking for a better life and these detention centers are leaving a long-lasting impact that will do more harm.”

Even when women do leave detention centers, being able to survive on their own is increasingly difficult. Factors like finding a job, a place to live and paying back debt, all lead to continued stress and trauma on their lives.

“Seeking asylum for persecution is a national human right,” Cook says. “And we truly lose sight of that.”

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