Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration
Data Services Coordinator
The Women’s Safe House
Meet Ms. Marcela French, a bilingual advocate working to empower women and their families who have suffered from domestic violence and human trafficking. Ms. French currently works at The Women’s Safe House in St. Louis, which continues to offer shelter and support to survivors despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration spoke with Ms. French to learn about her work and trajectory. In her own words, below.
Tell us about your work related to human rights, gender and migration.
As a bilingual advocate for domestic violence survivors, I am able to empower women and families to rebuild their lives free from abuse. In my position, I work closely with the LatinX population by providing advocacy, shelter resources and support. I also work as an interpreter with survivors of human trafficking. English or Spanish may not be their first language so these individuals are often put in compromising situations by their captors: they are promised work and the ability to earn money to send to their families only to be duped into paying their traffickers instead.
How did you get started in this work?
After graduating from college, I had a personal goal to work in social services helping individuals with my bilingual skills. I came to the U.S. from Colombia and know how it feels when you can’t speak the language and are trying to move forward with education and/or employment. Helping others in similar situations find the resources they need became a passionate vocation for me.
What is one myth/misconception most people have about the issues you work on?
One misconception about domestic violence is that it is always physical. Intimate partner violence can also be verbal, emotional, psychological, financial and sexual. Individuals in these situations can sometimes be “blind” to the fact that non-physical harms are also forms of abuse and just as damaging as physical violence.
Tell us about one connection between research, policy and practice that you have seen in your work.
We have implemented a Trauma-Informed Care approach in our policies and procedures. Trauma-Informed Care allows us to really look at what has happened to a survivor without judging them for being in an abusive situation or returning to an abuser. This approach has helped our agency provide quality support and services because we really listen to residents and assess their needs. We help them discover their own future goals instead of telling them what to do. Once goals are established, we offer the resources they need to achieve them such as referrals to permanent housing and employment opportunities.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work?
It has affected us tremendously. In the past month and a half, we have seen a 30% increase in the number of abuse cases compared to pre-pandemic rates. We have also dealt with challenging logistical details. For instance, we are faced with greater space limitations since women and their children need to be housed six feet or more apart from other residents and cannot share a restroom. We have had the good fortune to work with area hotels who have opened up additional rooms to house some of our residents. As a result of the pandemic, our timelines have also changed. Normally, residents participate in our programs for up to six weeks until permanent housing is located. Due to pandemic-related challenges, residents can stay for a longer period until housing and other resources become available.
About Spotlights: The Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration publishes a monthly Spotlight Series where you can meet Washington University faculty and students, as well as outside experts, practitioners, and policymakers working at the intersection of human rights, gender, and migration issues. To read more, return to the Featured Collaborators page.
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