International Women’s Day: Recognizing Female Asylum Seekers’ Challenges

As a nation built upon the ideals of freedom of expression,religious tolerance, and equality for all, America serves as a beacon for thosewho long to escape repressive governments and societies.

We resettle more refugees than any other country and grantasylum to tens of thousands of people each year.  Though our asylum system is by no meansperfect, those who benefit from it are able to start new lives and begin toheal from the trauma they and their families have suffered.

So given the US commitment to offering protection to allthose who seek it, the barriers facing women who seek asylum forgender-specific threats are truly remarkable.  

Gender-specific violence takes numerous forms and destroyslives around the world. Women in many societies are forced to undergo femalegenital cutting at a young age; those who manage to refuse are ostracized andoften forced to flee their homes. Women in China who violate its one-childpolicy must often abort their children and undergo forced sterilization.

In other places, women and girls are forced to marry menthey’ve never met or enter into polygamous marriages against their will. Andwomen who are victims of domestic violence often have no choice but to fleetheir countries in order to escape from abusive relationships.

While these are all legitimate grounds for receiving asylum,the process for establishing these claims can be arduous.

In almost all cases, women who have been victims of thesepractices must show that they are members of a “particular social group,” andthat they have been persecuted because of that membership. The process forarticulating a “particular social group” is much more difficult thanestablishing persecution based on, for example, opposition to a politicalregime.

In one well-documented example, Rody Alvarado fledto the US after escaping a particularly violent relationship in Guatemala. Herdomestic violence asylum case worked its way through the asylum system for 14years before she was finally granted asylum in 2009. The delay was largelybecause the US government did not recognize domestic violence as a legitimatebasis for asylum.

But thanks to courageous women like Rody, the road ahead forfemale asylum seekers may contain fewer obstacles.

Advocates across the country are taking a forceful stand insupport of gender-based asylum claims and establishing case law that will makeit easier for women to obtain asylum based on domestic violence, forcedmarriage, female genital cutting, and other gender-specific forms ofpersecution and torture.

And the movement to eliminate the arbitrary one-year bar toasylum applications – which a recent study has shown disproportionately barswomen from applying for asylum – has never been stronger.

On International Women’s Day, it is important to rememberthat persecution and torture are horrific, no matter the gender of the victim,the classification of the particular social group, or the role of the state asa perpetrator.  No just and equitablesystem would place more barriers to asylum in front of women than it does infront of men.

Our immigration laws are in dire need of reform, but weshould pay particular attention to the aspects of the asylum system thatprevent women from obtaining the protection they need.

As we work to improve the asylum system, we must also thinkabout how we can help those women who can’t escape persecution and torture, andwhose stories we never hear.

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