Sandra Henriquez was twenty years old when she took the women’s self-defense class that changed her life. An immigrant from Ecuador living in Los Angeles, Henriquez was no stranger to the street harassment that led her parents to forbid her to walk to school alone as a girl, and the class made her wonder: Why did women and other vulnerable people have to live their lives this way, constantly preparing for danger?
“I’m all for empowerment-based self-defense training,” says Henriquez, “but there’s been a huge shift in the sexual violence prevention movement since I took that class. The responsibility to prevent violence no longer rests with potential victims of abuse, but with everyone.”
The belief that all people have a role to play in preventing sexual violence has motivated Henriquez’s career as the CEO of ValorUS (previously known the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault) and as a RALIANCE co-founder.
We sat down with Henriquez this week to learn more about her history and views on sexual violence prevention.
RALIANCE: How has your identity as an immigrant and a Latina impacted your view of sexual violence?
Henriquez: My identity is inextricably linked to how I view and understand the world. People of all identities can be survivors of sexual violence, because it happens everywhere, but being a Latina immigrant has helped me to see the way discrimination and oppression layer on top of sexual violence. For example, early in my career, many of the survivors I worked with from my community were undocumented, which made them especially vulnerable. They feared that if they came forward about abuse, they risked exposing their immigration status, making it that much harder to seek help. That injustice has always stayed with me, and it’s why so much of my life’s work has focused on marginalized communities.
RALIANCE: What drove you to co-found RALIANCE?
Henriquez: The sexual violence field has traditionally had fewer resources than similar fields, such as domestic violence, which led to a gap in national leadership on the issue. My co-founders and I realized that there were many disparate organizations that people and groups turned to for advice – people came to ValorUS for anything focused on sexual violence prevention, for example, and went to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center for research and to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence for policy issues. The ecosystem was decentralized, and we saw a need for a national entity that could centralize our expertise and specialties, and help other sectors better navigate resources and supports.
When the National Football League connected with us about how they could make an impact on sexual violence, we saw an ideal opportunity to make this vision a reality – the NFL then became RALIANCE’s founding funder. Many large organizations like the NFL want to address sexual violence, and RALIANCE is in an exemplary position to help them customize responses and prevention efforts to create change.
RALIANCE: Can you describe a historic moment that you believe shifted public understandings about sexual violence?
Henriquez: I think we’re still waiting for that moment. For domestic violence, I remember that the OJ Simpson trial was a major turning point, when people came together to say that domestic violence was unacceptable – advocacy groups and foundations quickly formed and it became a priority issue in our culture. But we have yet to have that big cultural reckoning for sexual violence. I don’t mean to say that there haven’t been any moments of significance – the ongoing #MeToo movement has been very powerful, for example. But increased public awareness of the issue doesn’t go far enough. Our cultural institutions, our government, leading corporations, have yet to do enough to really take responsibility for addressing sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. We have to recognize that sexual abuse is not inevitable. We need to establish a cultural consensus that sexual violence is preventable.
RALIANCE: Why do you think a cultural reaction to sexual violence has been so delayed?
Henriquez: Much of our society’s failure to address sexual violence stems from how uncomfortable it is for many to discuss. We have such a hard time talking about sex in general, let alone sexual violence – the issue is scary, because it touches our vulnerability. When my parents forbade me from walking to school alone in Los Angeles, they never specifically said they were concerned about sexual harassment – it wasn’t an open dialogue. Instead, I slipped away one day to walk to school by myself and learned the hard way about the unacceptable disrespect a girl can face when she’s alone.
I also think the issue is just incredibly overwhelming, and even those who want to help have no idea where to start. That’s part of RALIANCE’s function – we can partner with industries and corporations to help them be a part of the solution by addressing sexual violence one step at a time.
RALIANCE: It’s Women’s History Month, so we’re wondering: Which history-making woman do you most admire?
Henriquez: Most people have probably never heard of the woman I’m thinking of – Domitila Barrios de Chungara. She was a miner’s wife who objected to the inhumane labor standards inflicted by Bolivia’s military dictatorship. In protest, she led a hunger strike with four other miners’ wives – at first people thought they would accomplish nothing, but thousands of Bolivians ultimately joined the strike, demanding better conditions for miners and free elections. The strike became so massive and disruptive that ultimately the dictatorship conceded to the demands. An ordinary woman took down a military dictatorship – it’s the only proof I need that we can all play a role in creating change.
RALIANCE provides consulting, assessment, and employee development services to help build more equitable workplace cultures and create environments free from sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse. We stand ready to support your organization’s goals – contact us today at [email protected] to get started.