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

Mike Corradini, JD on March 8, 2012

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

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

So given the US commitment to offering protection to all those who seek it, the barriers facing women who seek asylum for gender-specific threats are truly remarkable.  

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

In other places, women and girls are forced to marry men they’ve never met or enter into polygamous marriages against their will. And women who are victims of domestic violence often have no choice but to flee their 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 these practices must show that they are members of a “particular social group,” and that they have been persecuted because of that membership. The process for articulating a “particular social group” is much more difficult than establishing persecution based on, for example, opposition to a political regime.

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

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

Advocates across the country are taking a forceful stand in support of gender-based asylum claims and establishing case law that will make it easier for women to obtain asylum based on domestic violence, forced marriage, female genital cutting, and other gender-specific forms of persecution and torture.

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

On International Women’s Day, it is important to remember that 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 as a perpetrator.  No just and equitable system would place more barriers to asylum in front of women than it does in front of men.

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

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

Places: United States