Second-Class Refugees: Persecuted Women Are Denied Asylum

By Davidson, Miriam | The Progressive, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Second-Class Refugees: Persecuted Women Are Denied Asylum


Davidson, Miriam, The Progressive


On a spring afternoon in 1986, a thirteen-year-old Salvadoran girl named Marta Ramirez had just arrived home from school when she heard a knock on the door. Ramirez was alone, and when she didn't answer, three men burst in. The men were dressed in civilian clothing, but they had short hair and carried machine guns, like soldiers in the Salvadoran army. One of the younger men had blue eyes, Ramirez recalls, and the leader, a man in his thirties or forties, was missing a hand. The demanded to know where Ramirez's cousin was.

"Although I felt faint and shaky, I tried to keep my courage and answer them, saying I didn't know where he was," Ramirez says. "They called me a liar. The man with no hand began to beat me and to burn me with his cigarette. He was laughing and joking the whole time at my pain, like it was something very funny to him. He burned sores all over my hands and arms. He stuffed a handkerchief in my mouth to muffle my screams, and then beat me about the head with his fist to make me stop screaming and crying.

"What happened next is very hard for me to say and makes me very ashamed. The man with no hand started touching me all over my body with his one awful hand. He ripped open the school clothes I was wearing, tearing the cloth and ripping off the buttons. I begged them not to hurt me, but the blue-eyed soldier stuck his gun against my temple and told me to shut up. The leader shoved his fingers inside my vagina, and then he raped me. All I could do was shut my eyes tightly and turn my head away. I have never felt so destroyed in my life."

Ramirez never recovered from the attack. Over the next few years, she had constant nightmares and injured herself several times by smashing her head against the bedframe while sleeping. She feared that doors would fly open by themselves, and she checked the locks over and over.

Eventually, Ramirez met a man she loved. They moved in together and had a daughter. When she discovered that he, like her cousin, was a guerrilla, she begged him to give it up. He refused, and in July 1991 he was killed by the army. After she heard the army was looking for her, too, she fled to the United States.

Ramirez, now twenty-one, lives with her daughter in Tucson, Arizona, and has applied for political asylum. Her claim of persecution is based not on her own political activities, but on the activities of her cousin and her common-law husband. Ramirez also believes that, because she is a woman, she suffered and fears a particular form of persecution. In this, she joins a small but growing number of women whose claims don't fit within the traditional guidelines for asylum.

Asylum officers and immigration judges frequently fail to consider the kinds of things that happen to women - persecution because of male family members' political activities, or such gender - specific crimes as sexual assault, genital mutilation, dowry murders, and arrest for violating restrictions on dress and behavior - as worthy of refugee status. Instead, these crimes are considered "acts of random violence," or "private," or "culturally related." As the law is currently interpreted, an asylum officer may hear a story such as Ramirez's and "while he wouldn't disagree it's harm or persecution, he'd say she's not eligible," says Dan Kesselbrenner, director of the Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

In the past decade or so, refugee advocates around the world have begun to challenge this narrow interpretation of asylum law. The European Parliament and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have issued declarations recognizing that women who transgress social mores may qualify for political asylum, and in 1991 the UNHCR executive committee released guidelines on the protection of refugee women. The U.N. commission has also condemned the rape of more than 20,000 women in Bosnia as a war crime, thus recognizing that rape can be a form of political persecution.

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