Gender-Based Asylum

Protecting and Promoting Access to Asylum for Women and Girls Fleeing Gender-based Persecution

In June 1996, Fauziya Kassindja became the first woman facing female genital mutilation (FGM) to receive asylum from the nation’s highest immigration court, the Board of Immigration Appeals. Her case, Matter of Kasinga (sic), set national precedent and clearly established gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum. Her case has opened the doors for others to apply for asylum on the basis of gender-related persecution such as rape, forced marriage, and honor crimes. It also spurred the US Congress to pass a law criminalizing FGM in 1996 and fueled debate on the ritual throughout the world. Today, several countries, including Fauziya’s home country of Togo, have passed laws outlawing FGM, and it is widely recognized as a human rights abuse.

Tahirih’s founder, Layli Miller-Muro, was a student-attorney who represented Fauziya. Using her portion of the proceeds from a book she and Fauziya coauthored, Layli founded the Tahirih Justice Center in 1997 to protect other women and girls facing gender-based persecution.

Report on Women in US Asylum System

Precarious Protection: How Unsettled Policy and Current Laws Harm Women and Girls Fleeing Persecution

On October 1, 2009, Tahirih released a new report that calls attention to challenges faced by women and girls fleeing persecution and seeking protection in the United States, following a presentation of the report at a Congressional Briefing.

Over the decade since its founding, Tahirih has developed specialized expertise in the direct representation of gender-based asylum cases and remains at the forefront of public policy advocacy to affirm and expand protections offered by the United States to women and girls fleeing gender-based persecution.

While gender-based asylum law has developed in many positive ways over the last decade, other decisions seem to signal that the field has begun to regress rather than gain ground. Courts have issued decisions that deny protection to applicants who have fled forced marriage, suffered female genital mutilation, feared female genital mutilation for their daughters, and endured years of life-threatening domestic violence. These decisions are being appealed. Yet, these decisions are disturbing developments that may directly impact the ability of Tahirih’s clients to receive protection.

The Tahirih Justice Center is advocating in partnership with other organizations and a broad spectrum of political allies to prevent the regression of gender-based asylum and ensure protection for women and girls who manage to flee the persecution they suffer and demand justice.

Read more regarding recent decisions impacting FGM and domestic violence as grounds for asylum.

Mariama’s Case

Mariama Barry endured the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Guinea as a child. Today, she has a US citizen daughter and has to make an impossible decision, if forced to return to Guinea—leaving her daughter in the United States to be raised by strangers or taking her home and witnessing her certain torture, as her daughter too, would be subjected to FGM.

Mariama was denied asylum as a direct result of the Board of Immigration Appeals’ recent decisions in Matter of A-T-, where the court held that past FGM alone cannot provide a basis for a fear of future persecution, and Matter of A-K-, where the court held that a parent cannot receive “derivative” asylum to protect a United States citizen child from FGM.

As this issue impacts many of our clients facing similar struggles, Tahirih felt compelled to weigh in on the federal court case. In May 2008, Tahirih filed an amicus brief in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals arguing that FGM can cause permanent and continuing harm to women who are forced to undergo the procedure, often leading to ongoing health issues. In addition, the brief argued that the ritual can in some cases be re-inflicted on a woman and is part of a series of acts of gender discrimination and persecution that continue throughout a woman’s life.

Congressional Hearing on Gender-Based Asylum

Statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee

See Tahirih statements submitted in May 2010 (PDF) and May 2011 (PDF) for the record of hearings on the US asylum system held by the Senate Judiciary Committee

Tahirih held a Congressional Briefing on Gender-Based Asylum on March 11, 2008 that provided a valuable opportunity to educate members of Congress and legislative staff about the plight of women and girls fleeing violence worldwide. Opening remarks were provided by our Honorary Congressional Co-Hosts Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) and Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), as well as by then-Tahirih Board Member Her Royal Highness Princess Dana Firas of Jordan.

The event also provided a chance to address recent setbacks in gender-based asylum law in the United States. Bo Cooper, the former General Counsel to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service who was instrumental in the development of gender-based asylum, offered a historical overview and insights.

Particularly moving was a presentation by Ruth, a former Tahirih client and current Board member. Ruth fled her country after her husband died, to avoid having to marry his brother, as tribal custom would have required, and to save her daughter from female genital mutilation. Her escape involved a terrifying year of living in hiding with her children before finally managing to flee to the United States. With Tahirih’s help, Ruth received legal protection and is now working for a Virginia government agency, helping other refugees like her get back on their feet.


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