Flight to Freedom

Every year, millions flee their countries of origin in search of a better life. Some are looking for a chance to gain economic independence. Others simply want a chance at a new life. For many more, their flight has been the effect of living in a country where their governments have been unable or unwilling to protect them from persecution. For thousands fleeing their homes, they see their chances for salvation as being through the asylum process here in the United States. Unfortunately, many seeking protection from the U.S. have their claims denied on the bases that they are "cultural" or domestic concerns, not concerns of human rights. Examples of such claims are domestic abuse, bride burning, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced prostitution, and the list goes on. What you may have already noticed is that these claims are either made most frequently by women, or are made only by women.

"Under international and United States law, a refugee is defined as a person with a 'well-founded fear of persecution' for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group" (Center for Gender and Refugee Studies). This definition has primarily been interpreted in the context of male asylum-seekers, often to the detriment of female refugees. Though just like men women apply for asylum on the grounds of political or religious persecution, the majority of their claims deal with issues that most commonly effect only women.

Women's claims may be based on harms that are either unique to their gender, such as forced abortion, or female genital mutilation. They may also be based on harms, which are more commonly inflicted upon women, such as rape or domestic violence. Claims are also made concerning harms inflicted solely upon women because they are women. The policies of the Taliban in Afghanistan are an example of these types of claims. The fact that most of these abuses are delivered at the hands of private individuals, not governments, further works do discredit the validity of women's claims to I.N.S. caseworkers.

Caseworkers within the I.N.S. often fail to recognize that harms unique to women may constitute persecution. They are also resistant to the developing jurisprudence that recognizes that harms inflicted primarily because of gender may come within the protection of international or domestic and refugee law, and that persecution at the hands of private actors can form the basis of refugee protection where there is a failure of state protection.

Over and over again women's claims for asylum are denied on the grounds that they are not true claims of persecution, that they are domestic matters, or that they are based on cultural practices and therefore not within the jurisdiction of U.S. immigration laws. Women seeking asylum have often tried to argue that it is their gender that puts them into a particular social group. Unfortunately, the immigration courts are not buying it. Whether or not you agree with women being a particular social group is not so much the point. Women should not have to try to fit their traumas into an unjust set of laws. Other industrialized countries have begun to change their asylum laws concerning women's claims. It is time that the United States catches up to what is quickly becoming the system for evaluating women's asylum claims with much of the Western world. Changes are being made, but the U.S. government still has a very long road to walk before it reaches gender equality within its asylum system.

Suggested Sites:


Back to Women and Global Human Rights page