Below is “Not only women: Part 3 of the State of Women’s Rights” with Sandra Fluke, attorney and social justice advocate, interviewed by Cathren Cohen, media relations intern at ACLU SoCal.
ACLU of Southern California: Most people don’t know that you have a professional background in advocating for the rights of those who have experienced domestic violence and human trafficking. How are women in the United States affected by both today?
Sandra Fluke: There are a lot of women who are impacted by domestic violence in the U.S., but it’s not only women. We know that men underreport the violence they experience, and we see domestic violence in LGBTQ communities as well as in heterosexual couples. We see domestic violence that’s far too high. I think a lot of folks see this as an issue that we’ve already solved and that all of the laws are already in place. That’s just not the case.
In terms of human trafficking, this is actually an important issue for Los Angeles specifically, we’re one of the top five cities [in the world] in terms of entry of human trafficking—one of the top five destination cities—and that’s because of a couple of different things: We are, clearly, an entertainment capital and there are a lot of vulnerable folks who are told that they can be brought to Hollywood, made a star, become a model, become an actress or have a career as a singer or musician and ultimately, end up being trafficked and exploited in terms of either sex trafficking or labor trafficking. We have, unfortunately, a thriving pornography industry, that some folks end up in. We are also surrounded by a fabulous agriculture industry, and that means we see labor trafficking in the area.
We are also a gateway to Asia and in close proximity to Mexico. So those are a few reasons that Los Angeles in particular has a significant human trafficking problem. There’s also, among gangs in Los Angeles, this discovery that you can sell drugs only once, but you can sell young girls over and over again. We have a very serious concern, and a lot of us are working hard to change our laws and change our enforcement, too.
ACLU SoCal: Are there any figures on how many people are trafficked in LA in a year?
SF: It’s very hard to know. We don’t have very good estimates because it’s such a hidden phenomena; it’s so hard to find victims as there are so many still enslaved. There are some estimates for the country as a whole and the world, but even those are sort of hard to rely on. But for some place as specific as Los Angeles, it’s difficult to get that level of detail. We do know that California has, I believe, the highest number of calls to the national human trafficking hotline, and we know that of the identified cases in California, about 45 percent come from Los Angeles. That’s as of a couple of years ago. I would have to look at the most current stats, but it gives you a sense of things.
ACLU SoCal: After you had been working for Sanctuary for Families in New York City, what prompted you to decide to go to law school and change your career path?
SF: Well, I think I wasn’t really on a different career path. I just felt that it was very important prior to doing legislative or policy work to have some work that was close to the folks I was serving and really getting to know survivors of violence and those facing those challenges personally—getting to hear from them directly.
ACLU SoCal: You have been a vocal proponent of having women in government. What do you think are the biggest obstacles preventing women from obtaining public office or entering the career of law in general?
SF: I think the legal field is different than elected office. In terms of going to law school, women are going to law school. But we don’t have policies in our largest firms and private firms that have the kind of workplace family flexibility that a lot of women require. And that’s not a concern that’s unique to women, it’s just that now women are still doing the majority of caretaking in most families, so they tend to be the ones who end up on the “mommy track” and don’t necessarily end up as partners. That’s a problem in the legal world.
In terms of elected office, I think we need to grapple with who we imagine leaders being, what a leader looks like. We have to start getting young girls to imagine themselves in those positions; really trying to work not only with young women but also with folks of color, LGBT folks, immigrant families; make sure that everyone can see themselves being an elected official in our democracy because that is what our government is supposed to look like. It’s supposed to look like our community, and right now it doesn’t.
ACLU SoCal: You have recently supported the raising of the Federal minimum wage. Have you ever worked a minimum wage job, and why do you think that it is important?
SF: You know, I don’t think I did work a minimum wage job. I had summer jobs and things like that but I’m not sure, I might have been minimum wage, it was a while ago. What I know for sure is that I was never trying to support a family on it. That’s a really different situation.
I think the minimum wage needs to be higher just from the fact that it hasn’t been raised in a while and inflation has increased, so it’s out of date. I think it’s good economic policy to put money in the pockets of folks who will spend it in our communities and our businesses and help recharge and reenergize our local economy. And I believe that it is patently wrong that we have huge employers like fast food chains and Walmart and places like that, paying their employees so little that they are forced to rely on public assistance programs for health insurance and for being able to actually take care of their families. That is essentially taxpayers subsidizing corporate profit, when those corporations have enormous profits but are still paying their workers that little.
The minimum wage question is very much a women’s issue because the majority of minimum wage workers are women. I also think we have to think about our educational system and whether or not we are encouraging enough women and girls to go into science-related industries and technology fields because that’s where the really good jobs are. And that puts them at a disadvantage if we’re not preparing them for those kinds of jobs.
ACLU SoCal: What inspires you to do the work you do?
SF: I am really inspired by the folks I’ve represented, by the survivors of violence who have kept going when their personal life was so arduous or when there was no safe place, when going home wasn’t the way you took a break but a way you faced attack. And they keep going in order to keep their kids safe and fight to keep themselves safe. They are incredibly strong people.
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