Anti-Woman Law Part 3: Gender-Based Asylum

What makes an anti-woman law? Part 3 - gender-based asylum feminist foreign policy


On 17 March 2016, The Independent published a video of the ten most ‘draconian’ anti-woman laws including the Saudi Arabian ban on women drivers, unequal inheritance laws in Tunisia and the frequency of honour killings in a number of countries.  In February of last year The Huffington Post published ‘10 Ridiculously Sexist and Dangerous Laws From Around the World’, which covered Yemen’s troubling laws on marital sexual obligations and India’s 2013 Act legalising marital rape.  These lists, although accurate, lack the nuance needed to understand the ingrained and systemic violence perpetuated against women daily on an international scale.

Both pop culture and political institutions are taking note of gender equality. In 2015 the Swedish government declared its intention to create and implement a feminist foreign policy, and produced the “Swedish Foreign Service Action Plan for Feminist Foreign Policy 2015–2018” which set out a strategy for targeting inequality on a global scale to: "... ensure that women and men have the same power to shape society and their own lives. This is a goal in itself. But it is also essential for the achievement of the Government’s other overall objectives, which in foreign policy are peace, security and sustainable development."

[a]round the world, gender equality has improved. The proportion of women in parliaments is increasing. More girls go to school ... [yet] violence, oppression and systematic subordination still mark the daily lives of countless women and girls.

The policy document identified the components that fuel inequality, addressing the problems and policies that keep women from achieving equality whether politically, economically or socially, and created a plan for targeting these key areas. It notes that "[a]round the world, gender equality has improved. The proportion of women in parliaments is increasing. More girls go to school ... [yet] violence, oppression and systematic subordination still mark the daily lives of countless women and girls. Sweden wants this discrimination to end."  These comprised strategies to ensure ‘full enjoyment of human rights’, including freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence, inclusion in peace building initiatives and the promotion of women as actors in peace processes, political participation and influence in all areas of society, economic self-determination and sexual and reproductive rights. It comprises a summary of the myriad ways in which feminist progress is impeded, and how systemic the equality between men and women is internationally. There can be no doubt that it represents a positive strategy for tackling foreign policy to ensure that women are represented in every country.

The Swedish government’s statement could herald a significant change in the way in which national governments understand the need to incorporate feminist policy into their interactions with foreign governments or international peacekeeping bodies. If the USA and UK are to work towards a similar strategy, we have to consider two foundational principles; what constitutes an anti-woman law and how do we change these inequalities in our own systems, so that creating international guidelines does not appear hypocritical? Without acknowledging our systemic misogyny, a feminist foreign policy although well intentioned appears hollow.

So how do we define an ‘anti-woman’ law?

On the surface, mainstream media attention on anti-woman law usually revolves around extremes. In any newspaper or online list discussing the subject, there is generally a significant overlap with the worst discrimination against women imaginable listed. For the purposes of this series, I am framing my exploration around Amnesty International’s extensive description of anti-woman law and ingrained misogyny. It can be found in full here.   

In order to pursue a feminist foreign policy we must outline our own intentions to fight this abuse of human rights, but without first recognising the importance of confronting these injustices within our own society there is little hope of implementing a foreign policy free from hypocrisy. To better understand the problems in local and national context, I want to dedicate a series of articles to each of the seven areas that Amnesty International has identified and understand how those injustices are perpetrated in the Western countries I inhabit before exploring the creation of feminist foreign policy. This month I look at gender based asylum.

Part 3: Gender-Based Asylum

The purpose of these articles (see part 1 and part 2) has been to shed a light on the US’s own shortcomings and how these shortcomings might prevent the creation and implementation of a feminist foreign policy. Now, as the world is engulfed in a refugee crisis of staggering proportions, it is important to consider the needs of female refugees, and how the US can address the problems with gender-based asylum.

The first component of asylum we need to consider is the risk associated with being a woman when seeking refugee status. According to Amnesty International, there are a myriad of gendered reasons why a citizen might seek asylum. Women might seek refuge from violence in the form of forcible FGM, abortion, or honour killings, and state sanctioned or pardoned violence is also a serious concern. Women often need to flee domestic violence and crimes based on sexuality, not only due to physical danger but because their own government is unwilling to prosecute such crimes. In addition, women can hesitate to disclose their status to authorities for fear of further persecution. Stop Violence Against Women (StopVAW) notes there are some “culturally accepted” forms of violence, emphasising that because women were unable to seek help in their country of origin, they have little choice but to claim asylum. 

StopVAW also highlights another crucial - and gendered - aspect of asylum. In 1951, the UN Convention Concerning the Status of Refugees decreed that there were five acceptable grounds for the asylum; race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership in a Particular Social Group. There is no gender specific category. In 2002, the UNHCR asked “asylum grantors to adopt a 'gender-sensitive interpretation' of these five grounds”, yet gender alone was “insufficient to qualify as a round for fear of persecution.” The problem with this, as StopVAW identifies, is that sometimes the ‘particular group’ is too narrow to be successful. They provided the example of women who applied on the basis of being 'Female Victims of Domestic Abuse in Ecuador', who were rejected because the "members of this group do not share enough immutable characteristics." In other words, this was not enough to name them a ‘Particular Social Group.'

Simon Agnolucci, an attorney dealing with asylum claims, argues that some refugees’ situations allow for easier passage than others:

"You’d be hard pressed to find a court that doesn’t think that [FGM is] a basis for asylum … but in the case of forced marriage, there’s only one circuit court that has recognised that as a form of persecution. Domestic violence is still in flux. Sex trafficking is still in flux." 

A feminist foreign policy recognises the gendered nature of asylum.

Fleeing in itself is heavily gendered. According to Amnesty in 2012, 80% of the women and girls who cross from Central America and Mexico to the US are raped on route. UNICEF claims that the central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Europe is among the world’s “most deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women”, with travellers at risk from trafficking, rape, and smugglers, who "prey upon desperate children and women who are simply seeking refuge or a better life." Women and children account for 55% of those reaching Greece to seek asylum, but according to the EU, basic facilities that cater for women and children have not been put in place, with many reception or transit facilities failing to provide separate bathrooms or sleeping spaces for women who travel alone. According to Oxfam, the reproductive healthcare and family planning needs of many women refugees in Greece were unmet. This was of particular concern for women who spoke of a lack of female doctors in hospitals. Even when there were female doctors, an absence of female interpreters made communication about such healthcare needs challenging. 

A feminist foreign policy recognises the gendered nature of asylum, and compels all to ensure that women-specific violence and anti-woman laws are recognised as legitimate grounds to claim asylum, without having to adhere to the primary groups framework set out in 1951. In a climate where refugees are often vilified and scapegoated in the US and across the West, a feminist foreign policy demands we tackle discrimination at home as well as recognising the importance of gendered guidelines for those seeking refuge.

For a better understanding of the gendered nature of asylum, read these women’s stories: 

“Once, while I was nine months pregnant I heard the sounds of the airplanes and the barrel bombs and I got so shocked that I had a miscarriage.”

“Noha explains that access to healthcare, safety, and basic needs on top of the dire economic situation are her and her family’s biggest challenges. She has eight children.”

“Soldiers wanted to take my money from me and groped me everywhere.” 

Cleo Lawrence is a regular contributor to FFP, and currently working on her PhD in London.

Marissa Conway