I remember perhaps the most traumatizing refugee claim I ever sat on as a Member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
It was the case of a young woman from eastern Russia who had been made a sexual plaything by the Chechen mafia.
She was an attractive blond woman, perhaps stereotypically Russian, which may have been why she caught the Chechen gangsters’ attention in the first place.
They would come to her parents’ home and take her away, to be drugged and raped for a week and then returned. She had applied for asylum in the United States and had been turned down because at that time gender was not recognized as grounds for a refugee claim there. But it was grounds for a claim in Canada.
I see that various human rights organizations are gearing up to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of what have come to be known as the Gender Guidelines next year.
Of the many contributions that Canada has made to social justice, which include its early adoption of unemployment insurance, a universal medicare system, a wise and uncorrupted judiciary, reasonably-fair refugee law, multiculturalism, bilingualism, and so on, the advent of the Gender Guidelines was one of its greatest contributions. (1)
The case that provided the impetus for the Gender Guidelines was a claim against Saudi Arabia in which a woman protested the persecutory restrictions imposed on women there and won her claim. Previously gender hadn’t been a recognized ground for a successful claim.
It was followed by the drafting of special instructions to refugee adjudicators on how to deal with allegations based on gender grounds and the special needs of women who had been subjected to humiliating and traumatizing treatment.
It was recognized thereafter that women could become targets of persecution simply for being women. There are so many categories of rape – custodial rape, mass rape, rape as a weapon of war, etc. – that this fact alone shows immediately how women simply by being women can become targets.
Add to this selective abortions, girl infanticides, acid attacks, honor killings, dowry deaths, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and the many other instances of persecution aimed at women as women and it becomes clear why so many women claim refugee status and yet get so little focused media attention.
Wendy Young, Director of Government Relations, Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, has stated that:
“Canada was the country that really led the way in terms of the international community granting protection to women fleeing gender persecution. Their leadership was particularly effective in setting an example for the US which issued guidelines shortly thereafter.” (2)
Joyce Mends-Cole, UNHCR Senior Coordinator for Refugee Women, has said:
“The Canadian guidelines on gender-related persecution have had a profound influence on women’s rights in international refugee law. It has given refugee women a giant step forward on the long road towards gender equality. In the ten years since the guidelines were issued, UNHCR still finds that it plays an enduring role in raising awareness of protection issues specific to women.” (3)
The woman who stated her case against the Chechen mob in my hearing room that day had been turned down by American authorities and seemed determined that her claim would not fail this time. I remember her courage in forcing herself to get her words out describing what had happened in the face of every aspect of herself rebelling.
Her vocal tone went up and down uncontrollably. She shook and spoke through her tears. But she kept pushing her words out, determined to say what had happened to her. It was on that day that I really saw the contribution the guidelines made in the process of addressing the tolerated ills of our global society.
I haven’t any statistics to cite here but, in my experience, women claiming as women formed by far the largest single group of people who successfully claimed refugee status before me. I’m eliminating all the false claims of economic migrants posing as refugees, many of whom were men.
Each day we read in the papers of women being killed for refusing to marry their parents’ choice of a husband or having acid thrown in their faces for refusing a suitor. Or of being doused with kerosene and set on fire because their parents would pay no more dowry blackmail.
What we don’t hear as much about are the dismal lives of drudgery that so many women lead in today’s world. Or the confinement. Or the inability to attend schools or hold jobs. Our record in this area as a planet is abysmal and yet women in many countries have restricted access to the press or podium to effect change.
I don’t think we as a society have yet faced up to the atrocious treatment meted out to women around the globe. That’s one thing that will need to occur if we are to have truth and reconciliation as a global society.
Far better than simply to have gender guidelines everywhere would be a total change of attitudes in gender relations. I have great faith that we’ll see that this year.
I personally was not the same after the Russian woman’s case. I only wish that everyone who fails to take this area of persecution seriously could have heard her story as well. The suffering of women in this world has not been chronicled adequately yet. If it had, I think the world would hang its head in shame.
(1) Many areas of persecution in Canada itself remain unaddressed. Rev. Kevin Annett’s work in focusing attention on the genocidal treatment of native children is one of them.
For further information on gender persecution, see Ending the Global Persecution of Women at https://www.angelfire.com/space2/light11/women/index30.html