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This article was originally published on October 05, 2009.

Over the last decade, the United States’ commitment to protect women and girls fleeing violent human rights abuses has been called into question. Conflicting and incoherent judicial decisions on female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and other forms of gender-based violence have made it difficult for many women and girls to successfully petition for asylum in the United States. Others have found themselves trapped in legal limbo because there is no binding federal guidance on how gender-based asylum claims should be handled (the Department of Justice drafted regulations in 2000, but never finalized them).

This particularly affects survivors of brutal domestic violence, some of whom have waited years for a final decision in their cases. In addition to these problems that particularly plague women asylum-seekers, harsh immigration laws and procedures that affect all asylum-seekers continue to pose significant obstacles to women and girls seeking protection in the United States.

Tahirih Justice Center, together with Human Rights First and the Women’s Refugee Commission, convened a congressional briefing on Sept. 30, 2009 to call attention to the many challenges facing women and girls seeking asylum in the United States. The briefing offered policymakers and the public a critical opportunity to learn about the harmful impact of unsettled policy and current immigration laws on women and girls fleeing gender-based violence.

Tahirih’s Founder Executive Director Layli Miller-Muro gave opening remarks thanking attendees for their interest in increasing protection for women and girls fleeing violence. A former Tahirih client (who also served on Tahirih’s Board of Directors), Gisele, courageously recounted how she was forced to flee her home country after being arrested and beaten for resisting a forced marriage to the chief of her village. Gisele’s story about her struggles to find safety in the United States drew in the audience and gave a vitally important human face to the consequences that can result from U.S. asylum law and policy decisions.

Award-winning actor and human rights activist Sam Waterston (District Attorney Jack McCoy on NBC’s “Law & Order”) and longtime Tahirih supporter Congressman Jim Moran also gave compelling remarks, reflecting on the prevalence and severity of violence against women around the world and calling for the US to improve its response to women and girls in desperate need of refuge.

Tahirih’s Director of Public Policy Jeanne Smoot outlined the problematic state of gender-based asylum law in the United States, as well as the devastating consequences of a one-year filing deadline that can bar applicants, especially women and girls, from receiving asylum. Joining Smoot on the speakers’ panel were Annie Sovcik, Policy Counsel at Human Rights First and Emily Butera, Detention Program Officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

As highlighted in the Washington Post (“Clearer Rules Urged For Asylum Seekers”), findings from a new report by the Tahirih Justice Center, “Precarious Protection: How Unsettled Policy and Current Laws Harm Women and Girls Fleeing Persecution,” were also presented at the briefing.

Drawing on the compelling stories of Tahirih’s clients and the non-profit’s direct services experiences, as well as cutting-edge research gleaned from recent reports by other organizations, Tahirih’s report represents a new level of research and analysis that has only been made possible in the last year as its public policy department has grown.

The report critically examines how the lack of clarity and coherence in the field of gender-based asylum law, together with the severe implications of current immigration laws and policies of general application to all asylum seekers (including the one-year filing deadline, the expedited removal process, and restrictive detention policies with limited access to parole), can prevent women and girls fleeing persecution from finding the protection they need and deserve.

Tahirih is pleased and hopeful to think that through public outreach and education efforts like this recent congressional briefing and report, Tahirih can achieve true justice not only for one client at a time, but also, through system transformation, for all women and girls who seek safe haven in the United States.

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