Meet Female Janitors Learning to Fight Back, Literally, Against Sexual Abuse

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Female janitors learn how to fend off attackers during a self-defense class. The class was filmed for a scene in the updated version of 'Rape on the Night Shift,' premiering on PBS on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (FRONTLINE/PBS)

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 Frontline, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, Univision, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED in which female janitors spoke out about abuse by their supervisors and co-workers — 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.

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Literally.

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.