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These cultural barriers stop some rape victims from seeking help

RAINN is launching a Spanish-language crisis hotline. (Photo courtesy of RAINN)
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Across the country, thousands of sexual assault survivors have contacted the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network to ask: Is there help for people who speak Spanish?

The inquiries don’t usually come from Los Angeles or Miami, RAINN president Scott Berkowitz said. Cities with large Hispanic populations are generally better equipped to help Spanish-speaking residents through trauma.

But for the Mexican immigrant in Nebraska or, say, the Cuban native in Indiana, resources may feel out of reach. “They want to understand what happened to them,” Berkowitz said. “They want to talk to someone who’s been trained in helping survivors take steps toward recovery. It’s a difficult issue to talk about -- and it helps to do it in your own language.”

Talking isn’t everything. Beyond mere words, a counselor who grew up speaking a survivor’s language may also better understand the cultural factors that can intensify anguish.

Nearly 38 million people in the United States speak primarily Spanish at home, according to the Census Bureau. More than 17 percent of women who speak Spanish have experienced some form of sexual violence, according to a study funded by the Department of Justice.

RAINN announced a new crisis hotline Tuesday to accommodate them. The number for English speakers (800-656-HOPE), which launched in 1994, receives 14,000 monthly calls, Berkowitz said. His organization hired more than 40 new employees to handle an expected influx of new callers.

The Spanish hotline is a valuable new tool for native speakers who may feel isolated. Psychologists say going over an attack in a safe space can reduce anxiety and depression. Evidence also suggests there are differences across races in how psychological symptoms develop after a sexual assault.

Researchers at the University of Illinois, for example, found female African American college students who experienced an earlier attack were more likely than their white counterparts to blame themselves for their most recent sexual assault, which further damaged their self-esteem.

Hispanic survivors face specific barriers to seeking help, according to "No Mas," a survey of 800 people who identify as Latino or Latina in the United States. Forty-one percent of respondents said the primary reason a sexual assault survivor may not come forward is fear of deportation. Thirty-nine percent said fear of losing their children may stop someone from reaching out.

The act of discussing and reporting rape is already stressful, Berkowitz said. There shouldn't be an additional fear of losing your home or family.

"We often hear from survivors this common feeling of: I was responsible," he said. "We want you to know: It wasn't your fault."