Hesperian Health Guides

Sexual violence

In this chapter:

Although it would seem that sexual violence is caused by men’s sexual desire, it really has more to do with power over others than it does with sex. Women are often blamed for the sexual violence they suffer. But as with other kinds of violence, the person who chooses to use violence is the person who is guilty.

Just as violence usually includes a mix of behaviors, from yelling and humiliation to beatings and murder, sexual violence can include behaviors from unwanted attention and touching to rape and murder.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a big problem in many factories where most supervisors and managers are men and most workers are young women. In the community, women workers are also harassed by other workers, neighbors, and strangers. Often the harassment happens around the factory, particularly at the start and end of shifts or at lunch time.

People do not always agree about what sexual harassment is. One woman may be offended by a joke that makes another woman laugh. Some women feel harassed when strangers make comments about them on the street. Other women do not mind very much. Each person knows when she feels harassed, and how she feels is what matters.

a woman speaking as she and other women walk through the exit gate of a factory.
When we leave the factory at night, men are always hanging around at the gate. They stare at us and make sexual comments about our bodies. The guard does nothing.

Sexual harassment is any kind of unwanted, unreasonable, or offensive sexual attention. Sexual harassment can be:

  • touching: patting, stroking, grabbing, pinching, hugging, or leaning against another person’s body
  • words or sounds: comments, whistling, or noises that suggest sex
  • body language: standing too close, pointing, facial expressions, or gestures with any part of the body intended to suggest sex
  • pictures: making someone look at sexual photographs, drawings, or videos, or having these images in public spaces, or photographing or filming someone during sexual acts
  • writing: sexual graffiti on walls and other public places, or sending someone notes, letters, or poems that suggest sex

In factories, the person who is harassing might demand sex in exchange for a job or a promotion. Harassers are often supervisors or other bosses who can fire a worker or make her job harder if she objects to being touched or refuses to have sex. Men harass women because they know they have more power than women. But men also harass each other, using jokes, insults, and threats intended to place another man in a woman’s role, so he will be considered to be less than a man.

a man working on an assembly line; another man stands behind him, touching him.
Men might suffer sexual harassment at work, too.
people expressing different opinions about sexual harassment.
Some people say, "Sexual harassment is no problem."
It is natural for men to admire women’s bodies. These young women who work in factories like the attention and have many boyfriends.
If a man tries to become sexual with a woman, she must have done something to tempt him.
A woman’s world is inside the home of her family and husband. Women should serve their husbands and children. If a woman leaves the protection of her family to go into a man’s world, she should expect trouble.
We say, "Sexual harassment is wrong!"
Would you want your daughter or sister or mother treated like that?
Harassment has nothing to do with what women do, say, or look like. It is never justified.
We work to support our families. If we did not work we would not have enough money to survive. We should not be treated badly for trying to survive.

Factory responds to sexual harassment

Apolinar had been harassing me at work for a few months. At first it was easy to ignore what he said to me, but after he became my supervisor he said we were going to marry and I would have his children. I was very clear that I was not interested, but he kept insisting that soon we would be together and he kept asking me out.

One day he tried to move me to an isolated job. When I refused, he got really angry and started yelling at me. I reported him to his boss, who said I had misunderstood Apolinar. Realizing he wasn’t going to help me, I went to the personnel manager. First he said, "You must stand up to him." Then he blamed me, saying he had seen me encourage Apolinar.

Since nobody at the factory would help me, I went to CEREAL, an organization that helps workers in Guadalajara, Mexico. They called the factory, but the managers did nothing to stop the harassment. So I resigned. When the people from CEREAL heard that I quit, they contacted the factory management again and this time they did something. They fired Apolinar and offered me a job at another plant.

He did it!

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I have worked in a toy factory for 5 years. My supervisor would lean over me and touch my back and arms. I hated it but I was working and could not escape. It made very angry and uncomfortable. One day, when he came over to me, I reached my arm around him like I was patting him on the back. He did not realize I had put a sign on his back that said "Harasser!" I was so afraid he would get angry and fire me. But, when all the other workers and supervisors saw the sign and laughed at him, he got very embarrassed and stopped bothering me at my station!

If you are being harassed at work:

  • Let the harasser know clearly and directly that you do not want his attention. If you are being harassed in public, respond by speaking loudly to the harasser.
  • Ask co-workers to help you post signs in bathrooms naming the harasser.
  • Keep a record of when and where you were harassed, and what happened. Write what the harasser said, what you said, how you felt, and what any witnesses did or saw. Keep things the harasser gives you as proof.
  • Report the harassment to your boss, supervisor, union representative, worker or women’s group. Many countries, factories, and companies have laws and policies against sexual harassment but as with other labor rights, you often have to organize with others to have them enforced.

Activity Role playing builds confidence

a woman wearing a fake beard speaking to another woman, who replies.
Come here, girl.
Leave me alone!
It can be difficult to confront a harasser and tell him to stop. You can feel more confident by practicing what to say with other people. A conversation with one person playing the role of another person is called "role play." You may also want to role play how to tell your husband or family about the harassment, or how to report it to your boss or the police.


Many policies in the factory put women at risk of being raped. Working alone in isolated parts of the factory, night shifts or leaving work late, lack of safe transportation to and from the factory, and an overall acceptance of domination and violence put women in danger. Rape is one of the worst kinds of sexual violence, because it affects women physically, sexually, emotionally, and psychologically, and it also affects their families and communities. Rape happens when men want to have power over women — it does not matter what women wear, how they act, or what they do. Rape is never the woman’s fault.

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If you know someone who has been raped:

  • Reassure her that it was not her fault.
  • Be supportive. Listen to her feelings, help her decide what she needs, and reassure her that she can go on with her life.
  • Respect her wishes for privacy and safety. Do not tell anyone unless she wants you to.
  • Go with her to see a health worker, to report the rape to the police, to talk with someone who is trained to listen and support her, to see a lawyer, and to go to court if she wants to do those things.
  • Do not protect the rapist if you know him. He might do this again.

Health exam after rape

Someone who has been raped should see a health worker as soon as she can after the rape to get medical help and to record as much evidence as she can, especially if she is going to report the rape to the police. It is important that the health worker marks down everywhere that she is hurt. It may be helpful to document evidence of forced sex with photographs of bruises and other injuries.

a sample report that includes a drawing as described below.
Clinic Report
Patients's Statement:

A drawing of a body like this one can be helpful for the health worker to note injuries she sees during the exam. Both the health worker and the person who was attacked should keep a copy.

First aid after rape

Get medical and emotional help if you are raped or assaulted.

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First, talk with an understanding friend, someone you trust. Ask her to go with you to get medical care. Even if your injuries are not serious, a medical exam can document them, which may be useful later.

A health worker or doctor who understands the trauma of assault and rape can be will make the visit easier. Later you may want to talk with a counselor or support group of women who have been sexually assaulted or raped.

Tears and cuts

Sometimes rape damages the genitals by causing tears and cuts. These usually cause pain, but will go away in time. If there is lots of bleeding, you may need to see a health worker trained to stitch tears. For small cuts and tears:

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  • Soak your genitals 3 times each day in warm water that has been boiled and cooled. Putting chamomile leaves in the water can help soothe torn skin and help with healing. Or you can put gel from an aloe plant on the cuts and tears.
  • Pour clean water over your genitals while passing urine so it will not burn. Drinking lots of water makes the urine weaker so it will burn less.
  • Watch for signs of infection: heat, yellow liquid (pus) from the torn area, bad smell, and pain that gets worse.

Preventing pregnancy

You can prevent a pregnancy after rape if you act quickly. Use emergency family planning as soon as possible, no later than 5 days (120 hours) after sex. The sooner you use it, the better it works.

In some countries, abortion is safe and legal if a girl or woman has been raped. Ask a health worker or women’s organization for more information.

Bladder Infection

After violent sex it is common for women to have a bladder infection. Treat a bladder infection as soon as you notice it so you do not also get a kidney infection. (See Toilets and urinals for more information.) See a health worker right away if you:

  • need to pass urine very often
  • have pain, especially in the lower belly, or a burning feeling while passing urine
  • your urine smells bad, looks cloudy, or has blood or pus in it

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

Sexually transmitted infections pass from person to person during unprotected sex. After violent sex, the skin in the vagina or the anus may be torn, allowing an infection into the body. Since you cannot know if the person who raped you was infected with an STI, you should take medicine for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis right away. These infections often show no signs of illness, but cause serious health problems if they are not treated. (See Where Women Have No Doctor, Chapter 16.)


If rape exposes you to HIV, a health worker can help you prevent HIV infection by prescribing 1 month of treatment with antiretroviral medicines (ART). Start treatment as soon as possible. Because HIV does not show up in tests for about 3 months, you should wait to take an HIV test. Even though you used the ART, the test is important to make sure you were not infected. During this time, use a condom if you have sex so you will not pass HIV to someone else in case you are infected.

Hepatitis B and C

Hepatitis B and C are viral infections that harm the liver. Both infections can pass from one person to another during sex. You can have one of these viruses and not get sick, but some people with hepatitis B or C become very ill with serious liver problems. Get tested right away, and come back for a retest after 6 weeks. Use a condom if you have sex during the time between when the rape happened and when you get the second test.
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Wgthas black-un.png The right to live free of violence and sexual harassment Wgthas black-ilo.png

Violence and sexual harassment undermine individual and collective freedom and dignity. Also see The right to equality.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

  • Every person has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
  • No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment.

Governments are responsible for ensuring that workers are protected against all forms of physical, verbal, sexual, psychological, and emotional violence.

Sexual harassment is recognized around the world as a form of violence that hurts women and denies their right to live a healthy, dignified, violence-free life.

The UN includes "sexual harassment and intimidation at work" in the definition of violence against women. The Conventions that protect women against violence (see treaties.un.org) can be used to organize to stop sexual harassment at work.

The ILO says sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that undermines the integrity, dignity, and well-being of workers from many different communities, including women, youth, LGBT, and ethnic minorities. Sexual harassment also violates workers’ right to a safe, healthy workplace.

The Inter-American Convention on Violence against Women (A61) says:

  • Women have the right to a workplace free from violence.
  • Governments must penalize harassers and help victims of sexual harassment.

Unions that belong to the the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) have an Action Program to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. All their member unions have agreed to:

  • include language against sexual harassment in their contracts.
  • create rules about how to handle complaints and investigations.
  • ensure regulations against sexual harassment are included in collective agreements.
  • develop and provide trainings about sexual harassment to all members.
The roles of the UN, ILO, and other international organizations that promote workers’ rights are explained in Appendix A.

Casa Amiga fights to protect women in Ciudad Juarez

In Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city with many garment factories on the USA-Mexico border, around 400 young women have been raped and murdered in the last two decades. The police have investigated very few of these killings. For all these crimes, only 3 men were ever arrested; 1 died in the hands of the police and the other 2 were tortured to get them to confess.

Esther Cano Chavez, founder of Casa Amiga Crisis Center, believed the murders and the lack of government effort to solve them or protect women was predictable. "As women start to take factory jobs and become independent, men use violence to punish them for breaking social rules. Women organizers are particularly targeted." Although Esther died of cancer in 2009, Casa Amiga continues to offer hope for the future by helping and supporting women victims of violence.

Casa Amiga offers a 24-hour rape and sexual abuse hotline, medical services, legal advice, and psychological counseling. They also work to prevent violence in the home and to challenge inequality and discrimination. Casa Amiga campaigns for safer streets, safe public transportation, and police patrols of areas where women have been abducted. They also organize self-defense classes for women workers.

This page was updated:28 Feb 2021