Latinas Latimos Juntas- the Latin American Women’s Program at BWSS

Latinas Latimos Juntas– the Latin American Women’s Program at BWSS

BWSS is committed to providing specialized supports for women and gender-diverse survivors of violence who experience overlapping and intersecting barriers to safety from abusive relationships. One of the largest groups of survivors we offer specialized supports to is Latin American women and gender-diverse people.

As far back as the 1990’s, BWSS began working closely with activists from Latin American countries to fight gender-based persecution of women, and to support women fleeing appalling levels of physical and sexual violence in Central and South America.

Since 2003, we have been offering the Latin American Women’s Program (LAWP), which provides a holistic approach and cultural understanding of the unique issues and needs of Latin American immigrant and refugee women.

Rosa Elena Arteaga, BWSS Director of Clinical Practice and Direct Services, and one of the founding Latin American Women’s Program team members, reflects on the early days of the Latin American Women’s Program: “What we learned when we started to offer services to Latin American women is that there were more women needing that support than we previously thought. We quickly expanded our programming to address the needs of the community, and the Latin American Women’s Program really grew from there.”

BWSS’ work with Latin American women is unique and multifaceted.

Our Latin American Women’s Program offers Spanish- and Portuguese-language specific supports for women, including individual counselling from a feminist, trauma-based perspective, as well as group programming.

Through this program, BWSS serves Latin American women and gender-diverse survivors from many countries and many different demographic contexts, including survivors who are Afro Latina, Afro-Indigenous Latina, Indigenous to Latin American countries, and those who are settlers as well. We provide wrap around supports for Latin American women leaving abusive relationships, through crisis intervention, safety planning, and counselling.

Our short-term support workers and counsellors work closely with BWSS’ Housing Advocate, BWSS’ Advancing Women’s Awareness Regarding Employment (AWARE) program, and the Justice Centre at BWSS to ensure that Latin American survivors receive holistic supports to address any complex needs they may have.

We cannot discuss the Latin American Women’s program without taking time to honour the late Daniela Escolar, a committed and caring counsellor, and lead of the Latin American Women’s Program for 7 years.

Remembered as a fierce advocate for Latin American women experiencing IPV and GBV, Daniela impacted the hearts and lives of many Latin American survivors who have received our services.

Daniela’s dedication to supporting Latin American survivors shaped the Latin American Women’s Program into what it is today.

Daniela is dearly missed by the BWSS team.

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), Gender-Based Violence (GBV), and Latin American Women

Latin America is plagued by horrific, rising rates of intimate partner violence, gender-based violence and femicide. As a region, Latin America is home to 14 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide/feminicide in the world. In Mexico specifically, the rates of femicide are shocking, with 10 women killed every day on the basis of gender. Gender-based violence in Latin America is aggravated and amplified by the shocking leniency of law enforcement and the legal system towards abusers, the vast majority of whom are men.

As an anti-racist, decolonial feminist organization, BWSS acknowledges the pervasive impact of colonialism on rates of violence against women, girls, and gender-diverse people. The colonization of Latin America by Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and English settlers has resulted in patriarchy, racism and classism embedded into institutions and social systems throughout Latin America. In addition, the region’s deep history of enslavement of African peoples has modern impacts in terms of anti-black racism, systemic discrimination, and widespread gender inequality.

Violence against women, children, and gender-diverse people is one of the most powerful factors driving migration from Latin American countries to Canada and the United States. “Sexual and gender-based violence”, according to an article produced by the Atlantic Council, “is a primary factor forcing women and girls to migrate from the three Northern Triangle countries: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” Likewise, sexualized and gender-based violence in Mexico has resulted in new waves of migration north, with more women and children fleeing than ever before.

BWSS acknowledges the struggles of Latin American women who are fleeing violence from their native country, who may have undergone systemic violence and oppression, and who have experienced the immigration process that we know can be unjust and retraumatizing for survivors of violence. We also acknowledge that upon arrival in Canada, Latin American women face further injustices as newcomer immigrants and refugees.

BWSS’ recently released Colour of Violence report acknowledges that “being a newcomer to Canada shapes experiences of and responses to gender-based violence”. We know that there are many ways that being a newcomer to Canada impacts the experiences that Latin American women have with GBV. From experiencing precarious immigration status, to the imbalance of power dynamics in intimate relationships with white Canadians, Latin American women and gender-diverse people, like other migrant and newcomer groups, are particularly vulnerable to experiencing GBV. 

Latin American women who have immigrated to Canada may have left their families and homelands, as well as their careers and property behind. Without the often tight-knit support systems of their home communities and cultures, women can be left isolated, and relying on their partners’ friends and family for their social, cultural, and financial needs.

For Latin American women whose partners are Canadian citizens, and in particular those who are white, power dynamics exist that create complex conditions and considerations. Like many immigrant or refugee women, Latin American women may be sponsored by their abusive partner, exacerbating the conditions that lead to their vulnerability. In some cases, there are only promises of sponsorship, which can prove empty and false only when it is too late, such as after a woman has children born in Canada. For Latin American women whose children are born in Canada, fear of losing custody of their children and being deported can lead them to staying in abusive relationships.

Like all survivors of IPV and GBV, Latin American women and gender-diverse people experience financial barriers to safety, including the high cost of housing and food. For women with children, the cost of childcare can pose an immense obstacle to independence from an abusive partner.

BWSS understands that immigrant and refugee women accessing our services may not only have immediate needs related to IPV and GBV experiences in Canada but often carry previous trauma that requires support to integrate into their host country. BWSS knows that Latin American survivors need language-specific, culturally-relevant, wrap around services in order to overcome these barriers, and through our Latin American Women’s Program, we aim to address the needs of the Latin American community by filling gaps in support services for survivors of violence.


The Latin American Women’s group

Sujey Villalobos-Estrada, Women’s Counsellor in the Latin American Women’s Program, runs Latinas Latimos Juntas, a weekly group for Latin American women experiencing IPV and GBV. Latinas Latimos Juntas, meaning “Latina hearts beating together”, is a group that brings survivors together to learn about and discuss important topics relating to violence in relationships. Participants learn to give name to the violence they are experiencing, and in doing so, fight the gaslighting that is so common in abusive relationships. Participants work together to identify and name their emotions, and to empower each other in their healing journeys as peers.

Sujey describes the Latinas Latimos Juntas group as a place of connection and culture.  “One moment we are talking about violence”, states Sujey, “and the next we are doing grounding activities, like maybe art, singing, or a little bit of dance.” The Latinas Latimos Juntas group offers an opportunity for survivors who have been isolated to create community once again. In reflecting on the bonds created between group participants, Sujey reflects that “connections happen so fast”, something that she notes is “linked to Latin American culture.”

Sujey appreciates seeing the strength in participants and admires how they communicate with and support each other during each session. “It’s a huge reward for me”, she says, “it’s beautiful to see the women supporting each other, and how they start to name the violence and move past it”. Sujey adds that “accompanying survivors through the process of healing is a big part of my work in the Latin American Women’s Program and the work of BWSS overall.”


Latin American Women and the Justice Centre at BWSS

BWSS is committed to walking with survivors of gender-based violence on their journeys towards justice and healing, and one of the ways we do so is through the Justice Centre at BWSS. The Justice Centre at BWSS is a community legal program providing legal services and advocacy for self-identifying women and gender-diverse survivors of IPV and GBV. The Justice Centre offers support to women and gender-diverse survivors who are facing the family law, immigration, child welfare, civil law, and/or criminal justice legal systems.

BWSS knows that the legal system can be alienating, intimidating, and re-traumatizing to survivors of IPV and GBV seeking justice. This is especially true for Latin American newcomer immigrant and refugee survivors of violence who face racism and language barriers when accessing the legal system in Canada. Sujey explains that “In most Latin American countries, having access to a good education in a second language is a privilege that most immigrants do not have. As a result, they find themselves in a vulnerable situation, often dependent on their abusers. There is a significant imbalance of justice, particularly if the abuser is white and English is their first language, as they have the ability to present their case effectively. Conversely, women with limited English proficiency face difficulties in expressing the details of the abuse.” Listening to the stories of many immigrant survivors, it is clear that racism and language barriers play a significant role in their ability to access justice in Canada.

BWSS’ Empowering: Non-Status, Refugee and Immigrant Women who Experience Violence manual outlines some additional reasons why Latin American women are apprehensive of the legal system in Canada. “Due to their experiences in their home country”, its authors state, “some Latin American women are highly suspicious of the legal system”, adding that “there is a tendency amongst Latin American women who experience violence to see the justice system as more of a risk than a resource”. One of the main barriers to safety for Latin American women is “not having knowledge about the Canadian legal system. Lack of knowledge affects a woman’s efficacy when she is trying to access the system and places the abuser in an increased position of power over the woman.” BWSS acknowledges that the legal system in Canada often presents unnecessary bureaucracy and barriers to justice for immigrant and refugee survivors of violence, and we offer our services as a means of addressing the injustices that plague the legal system.

Karen Bation, Manager of the Justice Centre at BWSS, explains how the Justice Centre assists survivors with a variety of immigration supports: “Our team works closely with survivors to help them with their immigration status. For example, if there is a sponsorship breakdown from an abusive spouse, we can work with the woman to pursue a temporary resident permit (TRP) application and an open work permit (OWP). These allow a survivor to remain in Canada and gain financial independence. We help women with other immigration concerns as well, like an application for Humanitarian and Compassionate Consideration if there is a Canadian-born child involved. If we assess that the woman is potentially a refugee, we can assist her in making a refugee claim. If a survivor is deemed as having refugee status, the Justice Centre at BWSS can help her apply for permanent residency in Canada.”

The Justice Centre at BWSS also assists women with pursuing Legal Aid representation for a variety of issues related to their experiences of IPV and GBV. Our Justice Centre team can assist survivors with applying for Legal Aid, and if denied, with the appeal process as well. Our legal advocates work closely with women to complete legal documents in the areas of criminal or family law- a task which allows women to make the most of their allotted hours with a Legal Aid lawyer. Members of our team also accompany women to court, providing crucial legal advocacy and support in times of dire need.


Lucia Vega Jimenez

There are few cases which outline more clearly the need for anti-violence legal advocacy for newcomer immigrant and refugee women than the heart-breaking case of Lucia Vega Jimenez. Vega Jimenez, a Mexican woman living without status in Vancouver, was incarcerated by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and faced deportation while waiting in the Immigration Holding Centre in the Vancouver International Airport. In December 2013, fearing gender-based persecution, including torture and murder upon her return to Mexico, Lucia ended her life awaiting deportation.

In 2014, Rosa Elena Arteaga, appeared as a witness in a Coroner’s Inquest into her death in CBSA custody. In her intervention, Rosa Elena testified that “for several years, BWSS has been raising the alarm about the relationship between gender-based violence and precarious immigration for women, in general, and specifically from Mexico.” During her testimony, Rosa Elena called out the dehumanization and objectification of Vega Jimenez both during her time in custody and throughout the inquiry process. Rosa Elena argued that “CBSA had discounted Ms. Jimenez’s experience of gender-based violence and the risk of death it appeared she faced returning to Mexico.” She added that “gender-based violence and precarious immigration status are not understood or are ignored by Canadian officials.” 

BWSS’ Colour of Violence report notes that Rosa Elena’s testimony “raised the alarm about the relationship between gender-based violence and precarious immigration status for survivors.” As a result of this work and other advocacy, at the time, BWSS agreed to collaborate with CBSA and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) to ensure that migrant, refugee, and non-status survivors can pursue legal remedies and support from BWSS without fear of automatic deportation. We have also trained CBSA and VPD officers on working with migrant, refugee, and non-status women who have experienced gender-based violence.

“In honor of Lucia Vega Jimenez and the many invisible Lucias”.

-Rosa Elena Arteaga

BWSS remains committed to ending systemic racism and discrimination against migrant, immigrant, and refugee women. Providing culturally-responsive, accessible support services is one of the ways we are committed to addressing the marginalization of Latin American women and gender-diverse people experiencing intimate partner violence and gender-based violence. We work tirelessly to eliminate violence against women and stand in solidarity with Latin American women fighting for safety, freedom, and justice!