Meet Female Janitors Learning To Fight Back – Literally – Against Sexual Abuse

January 16, 2018

Every night, as most of us head home, janitors across America, many of them immigrant women, begin their night shift.

As they work, they are often alone or isolated in empty buildings, vulnerable to sexual violence. Among those who have faced assault, many are afraid to come forward out of fear that they’ll be fired or deported.

This hidden reality was revealed in Rape on the Night Shift, a 2015 investigation from FRONTLINEthe Investigative Reporting Program at UC BerkeleyUnivisionReveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED in which female janitors spoke out about abuse by their supervisors and coworkers — despite the risks, and years before the burgeoning #MeToo movement.

Tonight on PBS, an updated version of Rape on the Night Shift continues their story — exploring how the government, businesses and law enforcement are responding to the problem, and how the women themselves are fighting back.


In the above scene from Rape on the Night Shift, go inside a self-defense class being held specifically for female janitors. Using dummies, they learn how to deliver a knee to the groin, and how to use their thumbs to target an abuser’s eyes. When they pose for a group picture, instead of “cheese,” they shout, “No!”

“I believe that every woman worker needs to understand how to defend themselves,” says Lilia Garcia-Brower, whose organization, the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, runs the classes. “We’re essentially looking to create an army of female janitors who are committed to go out and talk to as many female janitors as possible so that they too can understand that they have the power within them to defend themselves.”

Martha Mejia, who came forward about the abuse she suffered after hearing other janitors’ stories, is one recent graduate of the class.

“This class is wonderful,” she says. “It makes us safer. We don’t need athletic bodies, or weapons to be able to defend ourselves. Just our hands.”

But teaching janitors to defend themselves against unwanted sexual advances is just one prong of a broader fight that aims to prevent such abuses.

As the #MeToo conversation spreads beyond the worlds of Hollywood, media and politics, get the full story on sexual abuse in the janitorial industry, and efforts to hold employers and abusers accountable, in an updated version of Rape on The Night Shift. The film premieres tonight at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on PBS (check local listings) and online.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

A Consequential Supreme Court Term, Decades in the Making
For context on the historic U.S. Supreme Court term that ended June 30 — and several of its monumental decisions — revisit past FRONTLINE documentaries on how conservatives gained a court majority, as well as on abortion, guns, the environment and more.
July 6, 2022
Mass Shootings, a Supreme Court Ruling, Bipartisan Legislation: How America Reached This Moment on Guns
FRONTLINE has been chronicling America’s dialogue on guns for years. Get the backstory on the recent news in these documentaries.
June 29, 2022
The Supreme Court Has Overturned 'Roe v. Wade.' These Documentaries Show How We Got Here.
Overriding nearly five decades of legal precedent, the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in the U.S. These documentaries offer context on how America reached this moment.
June 24, 2022
Why the Black Educator Forced Out Over Bogus Critical Race Theory Claims Wanted to Share Her Story
ProPublica reporter Nicole Carr explains why educator Cecelia Lewis was hesitant to speak to reporters about white parents forcing her out of her job and why she ultimately decided she had to.
June 18, 2022