Dear Assistant Director Reid and Division Chief Dunn:
We submit the following comments on behalf of AHA Foundation, Concerned Women for America, and Independent Women’s Forum in opposition to specific sections of the above-referenced NPRM (“Asylum NPRM” or “proposed rule”), and urge the Departments to amend the proposed rule to address our concerns as outlined below.
AHA Foundation was founded by human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a survivor of female genital mutilation and forced marriage, to end harmful cultural practices in the United States. For more than ten years, AHA Foundation has worked to support individuals facing honor violence, forced marriage, child marriage, and female genital mutilation in the U.S. to find safety; has developed policy proposals and supported the passage of legislation to protect women and girls from these harmful practices; conducts research; and trains professionals likely to handle cases.
Concerned Women for America (CWA) is the largest public policy women’s organization in the United States. For over four decades, CWA has worked to protect the wellbeing, dignity, safety and privacy of women and girls in both law and policy. With “sexual exploitation” as one of its seven core issues, CWA advocates for women and girls who are victims of violence — most recently for justice for survivors of rape and for the passage of federal legislation against female genital mutilation practice in the U.S.
The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that are not just well-intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices and opportunities. IWF has advocated consistently for strong policies to protect women and girls, both in the United States and around the world, from human rights abuses, including efforts against harmful practices like female genital mutilation, forced marriage and honor killings.
There is great concern over the proposed inclusion of gender as one of eight situations where the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General will not favorably adjudicate asylum or statutory withholding of removal claims based on persecution.
Our work and recent research show that women face specific persecutions because of their gender, and that their governments either fail to or refuse to protect them.
Millions of women around the globe face threats of gender-based violence. Horrific abuses like female genital mutilation (FGM), honor killings, and forced marriage threaten women and cause them to flee, looking to find a safer life.
Female genital mutilation refers to the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia for nonmedical reasons: a practice that has no health benefits and brings lifelong physical and psychological consequences. FGM is violence against women at its worst.
More than 200 million women around the world have been subjected to this violence. It is traumatic for young girls to undergo, it is not a valid religious practice, and it is simply an unacceptable violation of the rights of young women and girls.
A recent report by 28 Too Many and the Thomson Reuters Foundation highlights governments’ failure to protect their citizens from this abuse. Of the 28 African countries with high prevalence rates of FGM studied, “[a]pproximately 30% of the 55 million at-risk girls live in six countries
that have no legislation in place to prohibit FGM…” It goes on to state that in those remaining 22 countries in their study, “[l]aws are under-enforced and prosecutions are rare.”
Many women around the world suffer honor violence at the hands of their relatives, usually male relatives, who are seeking to reclaim the family honor due to a suspected action by the woman that allegedly tainted or dishonored her family name. The woman may face brutal retaliation that
often results in death. The United Nations estimates about 5,000 women and girls are murdered each year in “honor killings” by members of their families.
Crimes with the motive of restoring a family or individual’s honor have long gone unpunished or receive lesser sentences in many countries. Equality Now reports that still today in Egypt and Syria, legal codes provide for lesser punishments for male family members who murder women caught in acts of adultery. This leniency for honor killings not only fails to protect women, it condones their persecution.
Forced marriage is also thrust upon women around the world. A woman can be married without her informed consent. Family members or others may use physical or emotional abuse, threats of violence, or deception to force the marriage. In 2016, the International Labour Organization and Walk Free Foundation estimated 15.4 million people were living in forced marriages globally, 88% of them were women, 37% were under the age of 18 when married.
We hope women who are trying to escape female genital mutilation, honor violence, and forced marriage in their home countries will continue to have a chance of refuge in the United States and be able to claim asylum based on these human rights atrocities.
Limiting the definition of political opinion to “an ideal or conviction in support of the furtherance of a discrete cause related to political control of a state or a unit thereof” is problematic in its exclusion of those fighting globally for the equality and fundamental human rights of women and girls.
More than two years ago, Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani were arrested in Saudi Arabia, along with others, for peacefully protesting the country’s structural inequality of women. These brave women’s rights activists, who remain imprisoned for their public stance that women should be allowed the right to drive, and should be free from the male guardianship system, which restricted the movement and activities of women to those approved by their male guardians, were hardly fighting for political control of a state. Their goal was autonomy and to make a space for themselves in public life, yet Saudi Arabia, governed by Shariah (Islamic law), incarcerated them for their view that the state- mandated oppression of women should end. This, despite the fact that simultaneous to arresting the activists, Saudi Arabia was taking steps towards allowing more freedoms for women. Amnesty International reports that during their detention, the activists have been tortured and denied due process.
It is clear that these women are unable to live safely in their home country. Their persecution is based on their political activism, activism which was not aimed at political control. It would be a mistake to narrowly define political opinion at the exclusion of such activists.
The Departments’ guidance to “bar consideration of evidence promoting cultural stereotypes of countries or individuals” causes concern due to the potential to discount extensive research and expert testimony on well-documented social norms that support violence. As an example, in cultures that place vital importance on the concepts of honor and shame, and subscribe to the idea that the honor of a family or community is based on the sexual fidelity of its female members, a woman may be targeted for violence because she is considered to have violated those social norms. The culture of honor, and the specific targeting of women within these
communities, may be thought of as generalized or stereotypical, while the phenomena is very real and has been widely documented. Such social norms are important considerations when evaluating the potential fear of harm an individual may face.
AHA Foundation, Concerned Women for America, and Independent Women’s Forum urge the Departments to amend the proposed rule immediately to promote policies that protect and support survivors of persecution, including those who suffer persecution based on their gender.
Thank you for considering our perspectives, please contact us with any questions.
Penny Young Nance
CEO and President
Concerned Women for America
Independent Women’s Forum