This is a guest blog post by Heidi Silver-Pacuilla that was originally posted on the blog for the National Coalition for Literacy. Women make up more than 50 percent of the adult ed population; in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, they are more than 60 percent. Consider how to take the unique concerns of women learners into account in adult ed programming and teaching.

by Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, 2010-2011 President of the National Coalition for Literacy

Women make up more than 50 percent of the adult ed population; in ESL classes, they are more than 60 percent (NRS tables, 2008-2009). How much are we taking the unique concerns of women learners into account in our programming and teaching? In March, Women’s History Month, I was able to attend several events focused on women immigrants and the role and challenges they face in the U.S. economy and society. This post summarizes some of the key points that impact our adult education programs, instruction, and communities.

The first event was on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, March 8, held at George Washington University and hosted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute shared data on immigrant women in the United States:
–          20 million foreign-born women represent half of the foreign-born population – this is quite unusual as migration patterns around the world usually see a much greater number of men that women.
–          11 million women are limited English proficient, 55 percent of whom are non-citizens; half of whom are in their prime working years (25-49); 23 percent are 50-64.

In all presentations, there was an overwhelming urgency to raise national awareness of the culture of fear that is being perpetuated on the immigrant community and its traumatic effects on women, men and children.

The fear of family separation is very real.

Michelle Brane, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, enumerated that 32,000 people are detained every day in the United States, 3,200 of whom are women. These detainees are taken to detention facilities where there is lack of security and safety as they are mixed in with criminal detainees and a lack of medical care – or even basic hygiene.  Eighty percent of detainees do not have an attorney and there is no right to paid counsel.

When women are detained, there are no regulations in place for how law enforcement officials are to handle notification of the family. Children are left to wonder where their mother is and arrangements for care of the children are completely ad hoc. Many heart-wrenching stories were told of families caught in this situation.

Watch for the Help the Immigrant Children Act to be re-introduced in the House and Senate around Mother’s Day to protect Due Process Rights of Parents. Under the Act, children would be told how to stay in contact with the parents; law enforcement officials would be required to screen for whether a detainee is a parent; detention would be considered only in case of threat to community; detainees would be given access to family courts; and family reunification would be facilitated whether the parent remains in United States or not.

March 25 was the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in NYC, a tragedy in which 146 young – mostly immigrant – women died in an unsafe workplace, and an event that galvanized the worker safety movement in the United States. I attended an event held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in commemoration, the webcast of which is available online.

Women’s role in the economy is growing. NCL examined the realities for women with low skills in the current economy in a January blog post and women’s educational opportunities in the December 2010 Policy Forum.  Our learners are fulfilling multiple roles: workers, family members, caregivers, their child’s first teacher. For immigrant women, several issues are particularly challenging.

Sara Mazano-Díaz, Director of the Women’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labor, welcomed participants, saying that the Women’s Bureau represents the 72 million working women in the United States. She said that undocumented and immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination, and unsafe working conditions.

“No one should go to work worried about getting home safely,” she said. She highlighted efforts of the Department of Labor including a We Can Help campaign in multiple languages that explains to workers how to report safety violations, wage discrimination, and file complaints. Find more information and resources in multiple languages to share with your learners on the website.

Organizations step in to offer support to immigrant women.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, released a new report at the event, Organizations Working with Latina Immigrants: Resources and Strategies for Change. The report and panelists on March 25 outline how community-based and faith-based organizations – including  adult education, workforce training programs and volunteer English tutors  – are providing services to immigrant women and families, and also living with the culture of fear and misinformation cultivated in various locations around immigration laws and rights.

Services in greatest need include:
–          Health care, especially reproductive care and mental health;
–          Affordable child care;
–          Legal services for violence protection; and,
–          Literacy and English language classes

See NCL’s English Language Learning Policy Principles that include a call for increased access to English and civics classes, collaboration with other service providers, and promotion of respect and appreciation for immigrants and their contributions to this society.

Panelist Mary Odem, Associate Professor of women’s studies and history, Emory University, urged the immigrant service providers to continue to advocate for municipalities to provide these basic services. “Don’t let them off the hook,” she said.

“Latina women and girls seem to bear the greatest burden of the culture of fear and anxiety in the immigrant community,” said Pierluigi Mancini, Executive Director of CETPA, a professional mental health counseling services for the Latino community in Atlanta, GA during a panel presentation.

This fear of detention and family separation is keeping many immigrant women in their homes, afraid to drive, to congregate, to speak out about domestic violence or workplace injustices, attend language classes, or to venture forth from their neighborhoods. This will surely impact participation in classes and is a concern the adult education community should share.

On a positive note, panelists and audience participants celebrated the resilience and strength in the immigrant community. In particular, panelists urged community-based organizations to continue to provide leadership opportunities to the “Dreamers” – the young immigrants who rallied to support the Dream Act last year. (See how the Dream Act would have impacted adult education.)  These young leaders are bright, accomplished, media-savvy, and now, fired up to advocate for their communities. The National Council of La Raza, co-sponsors of the event on March 25th, is keeping the Dream Act and Dreamers alive and cultivating them as advocates for the immigrant community. Stay tuned!

Heidi Silver-Pacuilla is Senior Research Analyst at American Institutes for Research (AIR), and the Deputy Director of the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) funded by the Office of Special Education Programs. She serves on the board of directors of the National Coalition for Literacy.