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Immigrant and Education Issues Discussed Before the Berkshire Commission on the Status of Women

By Patrick Donges


Stockbridge, MA – Several local women gathered at Stockbridge's Town Hall Thursday evening for the third public hearing held by the Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women. Pam Malumphy co-chair's the commission.

"We're really here just to hear from you...."

The commission is one of 19 groups across the state mandated to take testimony to study, report and review the status of women in the Commonwealth. Reports generated by local commissions are submitted to the statewide commission, which works with the office of the governor, legislative leaders and the state's caucus of women legislators.

This hearing was presented in partnership with Berkshire Resources for the Integration of Diverse Groups and Education, also known as Multicultural BRIDGE, which focuses on the promotion of mutual understanding and acceptance across the county's ever-diversifying population.

The first speaker of the evening was Karen Lussier of the Elizabeth Freeman Center, which advocates for and supports women in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. She shared some startling statistics on violence against women.

"Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44. Here in Berkshire County, the rate of restraining orders by population is 40 percent higher than the state average. There have been five deaths related to domestic violence in this county in four years."

"Last year the Elizabeth Freeman Center received over 1,700 calls on our hotline, 51 percent more than the year before."

Among those served by the center last year were 23 Hispanic and immigrant families. Lussier said the actual number of women abused in those communities is likely higher.

"We believe that domestic and sexual violence is extremely underreported within this community due to many factors including financial abuse, and because of the threats made by the abuser to report them to the authorities."

That last factor is in the case of undocumented immigrants, who might face the decision to either reveal their legal status or file charges against an abusive spouse.

An example of that scenario was brought to light by Pauline Dongala, who described the situation one of her friends faced when dealing with an abusive husband.

"She was living here illegally and was having problems, really troubles, with her husband. And she lived with that for at least two years. When she called me she was crying every time."

Dongala said her friend resisted speaking out about her abuse because she was afraid either she or her husband would be detained by federal immigration officials.

Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, co-founder and executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE, concurred that domestic violence among immigrants is a consistent issue and described efforts being made by BRIDGE to encourage reporting among undocumented immigrants.

"BRIDGE has a women's group that's been running for a year on Tuesday nights. It started out as just in Spanish. They are scared to go. There are very few people that speak Spanish for them to really trust to communicate. If you are I were abused it would be really hard for us to find the words, to try and find those words in English and trust the systems and navigate the systems is nearly impossible."

"That coupled with the way undocumented immigrants live with public safety issues; the trauma that they saw however they arrived. All of that is just contained in the family and a lot of time the little children are carrying that through their families."

Another topic of discussion was the lack of women, specifically women of color, in local schools.

Shirley Edgerton is the Director of Residential Programs for the Department of Developmental Services of Berkshire County and founder of the Women of Color Giving Circle of the Berkshires and the Youth Alive step dance program.

"I'm particularly concerned about the lack of role models of color in our school system, and I would like to strongly, strongly suggest that that's an issue for us to take seriously."

"It's not only important that young girls of color have role models, it's a necessary experience for males and females, but particularly I'm talking about young women. The reality is we live in this global society, so our kids in the Berkshires are at a disadvantage if they don't have the opportunity for all groups of people."

Edgerton runs the "Rites of Passage and Empowerment" program for young women through Youth Alive. Over the past two years, she said up to 80 percent of white girls who initially sign up for the program leave after the first few sessions.

The commission is slated to continue their series of hearings in September.