Face-off: To address violence against women, should refugee status be granted based on gender?

In 2019, 474 Turkish women were murdered by their intimate partners or family members solely because of their gender. That same year, 4,555 women were killed in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the highest rates of femicide occurring in El Salvador and Honduras. In South Africa, it is reported that three women are murdered everyday by their intimate partners. 

Femicide is a global problem. Women, teenage girls, and female infants are killed everyday just because of their gender. The perpetrators are usually male family members or intimate male partners, but other women can also commit acts of femicide. The lack of witnesses during most femicide incidents, along with government indifference, creates a dangerous situation that leaves women in abusive households and relationships extremely vulnerable. 

In an interview with BBC, Thembi Mapjanga, a survivor of attempted femicide whose partner poured gasoline on her and then set her on fire, described the gender violence in South Africa as “uncontrollable” and explained that staying in abusive situations is emotionally traumatizing at best and fatal at worst.  

But violence against women does not just stay inside the home. Women are often attacked for participating in politics and involvement with political parties, while protesting, or because their sons and husbands are in gangs or other organized crime groups. 

As this violence and persecution rages on, many women have left their home countries to seek refuge in other nations. But their pursuit of refugee status has sparked an important debate when it comes to granting asylum: should a person receive refugee status based solely on gender? 

The Case for Refugee Status Based on Gender Persecution 

In 1951, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR) defined a refugee as someone who is persecuted on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group. However, gender was excluded from the categories that one can be classified as to seek international protection. This is controversial because women are often excluded from receiving protection under the CRSR. Additionally, the exclusion of gender from the CRSR ignores that women are often persecuted specifically because of their gender, as jarring statistics about femicide demonstrate.  

Unlike men, women are often not granted refugee status in response to the persecution faced due to their political or social involvement. Female participation is often overlooked because it is not as apparent or as easily proven as male involvement in political protests or social groups. For example, women are often not at the front lines of socio-political movements, but rather are working to provide clandestine services, such as hiding people, passing messages, and giving medical care. Women can also be targeted by opponents of their male family members’ political and social groups in order to exact revenge or silence them, but these types of attacks do not constitute political persecution under the CRSR since women are technically being attacked for their associations and not their own political beliefs. This ambiguity within the CRSR’s langauge allows for violence against women to continue without remedy or relief in the immigration system.

The problem then becomes providing proof in court for refugee claims that look very different from males fleeing the same circumstances. Due to the very narrow definition of a refugee, the burden of proof in refugee cases is extremely high. Often, the retaliation against women for political participation includes crimes like rape that do not leave much evidence and are extremely painful for women to relive. Survivors of gender-based violence seeking refugee status often suffer from physical and psychological consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and injury, and do not have access to the proper resources to cope. Additionally, in cases based on persecution of political or social ties, women’s cases are often evaluated with their male family members. In some countries, cultural norms may prevent the male family members from sharing details about their involvement with women. This is then perceived as a lack of evidence when questioned about the experiences of their relatives. 

Outside of the political persecution that women face, governments have also failed in prosecuting femicide within their own borders. In Turkey, 474 women were killed in acts of femicide. This number was not reported by the Turkish government, but was instead reported by a feminist group inside Turkey called We Will Stop Femicide. The Turkish government’s alleged disinterest in prosecuting acts of femicide results in a failure to keep track of the ongoing violence within its borders. In El Salvador, only 5% of femicide cases brought to court end in a verdict, and only 3% of those cases end in a guilty verdict. Moreover, in about 12% of the cases of femicide in El Salvador, the perpetrators are judges, lawyers, police officers, or other figures of authority within the local community. Governments are often unable or unwilling to prosecute these cases and keep women safe. The problem is not just that this violence is occurring to begin with, but that this violence is not taken seriously within the legal system.

Even in states with laws specifically addressing violence against women, there has been little progress made. In 2011, Turkey ratified the Istanbul Convention, or the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, which criminalizes gender-based violence and requires member states to institute policies to protect women. However, in the years following Turkey’s ratification of the Convention, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that it was “against nature” to treat men and women equally. Additionally, women may be expected to flee to another part of their home country, where they could potentially escape the violence before they are granted refugee status. While this is certainly possible in some cases, many countries, including Turkey, make it incredibly difficult for women to achieve economic independence, meaning that they must rely on male members of their family, the very members who may be putting them in danger. Therefore, the international community must be cautious when rejecting the asylum claims of women on the basis that such legislation protects them in a legitimate way. 

The failure of the state to address gender-based violence is causing hundreds of deaths a year, proving that women are a persecuted group unsafe within their home countries. Expanding the necessary categories for becoming a refugee to include gender will allow women to escape political violence and femicide, and to create a better life in a place where they feel safe. 

The Case for Not Expanding Asylum Definitions to Include Gender 

Although the violence waged against women is entirely atrocious and unacceptable, it does not fall under the persecution necessary to gain refugee status. The International Criminal Court defines persecution as “the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental human rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.” 

When refugees flee from their countries of origin, they are doing so to escape a persistent form of persecution that denies them their most basic human rights under the assumption that they will be reasonably safer in another country. Moreover, most refugees are persecuted because they are a part of a minority in their society, and the persecution they face is usually planned and not random. 

However, when it comes to acts of violence against women, there is not a gurantee that they will be safer in another country. The crimes waged against them might be better prosecuted, but misogyny is a universal issue and simply granting women refugee status based on their gender will not fix it or ensure that they will not face gender-based violence elsewhere. Using the immigration system as a temporary release valve for gender-based violence is like placing a bandaid on a bullethole. 

For example, in a study done by the Refugee Rights Data Project, in which the organization interviewed 300 female refugees inside of camps in Greece, 49% of women reported that they further felt unsafe within the camps, and there were several reports of rape and sexual assault.  

Additionally, the violence that women are facing is usually only perpetrated by one person and is not a state-sanctioned or military campaign. Therefore, it would be more useful to allocate resources to help women in abusive situations become financially independent and resettle in a different part of their home country, away from their abuser, rather than in an entirely new state — where these women may be vulnerable to a host of challenges, including financial, language and violent challenges, among others. And although the violence used against women is solely based on their gender, the acts of violence are not usually planned by a large group of people; they are usually just committed by a single individual.

On the other hand, women who are persecuted and attacked for their political opinions do qualify for refugee status, but under the already established political criteria of the 1951 Convention. It is true that the persecution women face because of their political beliefs is more intense and violent than what happens to men with the same beliefs, but granting them refugee status based on their gender instead of their political beliefs will not fix that problem. In fact, it does the opposite, and invalidates and minimizes the impact of their political participation. The difficulties women face when proving political involvement and persecution in court is not because of the narrow definition of refugee status, it is because of an existing culture in nearly all countries that undermines women’s stories and experiences. It would be far more effective to provide female refugees of political persecution with better resources and counseling that help them cope with the trauma they have endured and to train those working with refugees to address the biases that they have against believing women’s stories. This might be achieved through better humanitarian assistance aimed toward supporting and empowering women (though it is noted this solution also comes with a host of challenges).

On a wider scale, in order to qualify as a refugee, many international law scholars argue that individuals fleeing persecution must have no remaining recourse with their home government. While many states continue to ignore femicide and violence against women, other governments have begun passing legistlation to address these issues after pressure from civil society movements. For example, Argentina has demonstrated commitment to addressing this issue in the passing of the Micaela Law, so named after Micaela Garcia, an activist from the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) Movement who was killed in 2017. The law was unanimously passed by the Argentine Senate and instituted mandatory training to educate government officials about gender-based violence. Therefore, women living in Argentina and other countries taking similar action may be expected to seek protection from their own government, rather than protection from the international community. Although legislation does not always create tangible change, it does provide an initial step in addressing femicide and violence against women. 

Granting refugee status based on gender does not truly address the problem of global gender-based violence; it is merely a temporary bandage on a growing wound. Women should not have to leave their homes because of the crimes that men commit against them. There is no guarantee that victims of abuse and femicide will be safer in other countries or refugee camps, and female victims of political persecution deserve the same rights and recognition that male victims receive, because their political participation is just as valid, even if it is less visible. 

Looking Forward

As the debate over granting refugee status solely based on gender continues, it is important that regardless of the outcome, women are listened to and their stories are taken seriously. More often than not, women’s experiences with sexual assault and violence are questioned and invalidated. These reactions make it even more difficult for women to explain the trauma and violence that they have suffered through. 

Every woman, and every person, has the right to a safe home and the right to a fair trial when their safety and bodily autonomy is violated. Advocacy for victims of femicide and violence must continue, and women who have endured violence need to be empowered when they share their experiences, whether they are doing so at home or abroad. 

Leave a Reply