Domestic Violence Is The Biggest Killer of Women Worldwide, But We’re Not Giving Victims Asylum
In the age of #MeToo, we need to recognize gender as a basis of persecution under our international asylum laws. When 82% of victims of intimate partner violence are women, something is wrong. Women are being killed for the simple fact of being women.
To coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released the Global Study on Homicide: Gender-related Killing of Women and Girls. The report found that intimate partners or family members killed 58% of the 87,000 women intentionally killed in 2017. Shockingly, women make up 82% of all the victims of homicides committed by intimate partners, with men comprising 18%. For women, clearly, the home can be deadly.
International human rights treaties are supposed to be the guarantors of our rights, for both men and women, to live a life free from violence and arbitrary deprivation of life. Yet even the most visionary treaties fall short when it comes to recognizing the serious human rights threat to women of domestic violence. The Refugee Convention is one example. Created in 1951, it grants asylum to those fearing persecution on the basis of their race, political opinion, religion, and nationality. It also includes a catch-all category called ‘particular social group’. Countries wanting to help women fleeing domestic violence will usually protect them by saying they belong to the ‘particular social group’ of, for example, ‘women in El Salvador subject to domestic violence’.
But they don’t have to. Which is why, in June 2018, former United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions managed to overrule a legal precedent accepting domestic violence victims as a viable group of asylum-seekers (under the ‘particular social group’ umbrella). While lawyers can (and will) try to argue around it, Sessions’ decision essentially excludes women fleeing domestic violence from asylum protection in the United States. The devastating effect of this is just beginning to be seen, as the scores of cases of women fleeing domestic violence in their home countries make their way through the courts.
The 1951 Refugee Convention was created in a different time. Just after World-War II, people were primarily concerned with the types of persecution inflicted by the Nazi regime. This included discrimination on the basis of religion, nationality, ethnicity, and political opinion (for example, opponents of the Nazi regime). 145 countries have ratified the Refugee Convention, and in 1967, geographic and temporal limitations were lifted so that refugees did not have to be fleeing persecution in Europe — they could be fleeing any country. The Refugee Convention and its 1967 Optional Protocol were, and have been, revolutionary in creating a global system of refuge for vulnerable people persecuted in their home countries.
But 2018 calls for different concerns. In the age of #MeToo, we need to recognize gender as a basis of persecution. When 82% of victims of intimate partner violence are women, something is wrong. Women are being killed “because of their role and status as women”. This needs to be recognized in our major human rights and migration treaties.
Feminist legal scholars have pointed out for decades that, while human rights treaties recognize important rights such as free speech and freedom from arbitrary detention, these rights are really directed toward “protection for men within public life and their relationship with government”. Crucially, they fail to address “the ways in which being a woman is in itself life-threatening”. This thinking was visionary in the 1990s Women’s Movement (the era of Hilary Clinton’s Women’s Rights Are Human Rights speech), yet very little has changed today.
The Trump administration’s June 2018 decision brings us directly back to the problematic public/private divide, where men’s ‘public’ issues are deemed more worthy of protection than women’s ‘private’ issues. In that case, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions invited the lawyers to brief him on whether “being a victim of private criminal activity” warranted protection under U.S. asylum law. He found it likely never would, absent “exceptional circumstances”.
And asylum laws are just the tip of the iceberg. Other feminist criticisms of human rights treaties abound. Why are they written in the ‘he/his/him’ form? Why is there no binding international treaty explicitly prohibiting violence against women? Why is up-skirting still legal in the UK? Why has the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women attracted more objections than any other human rights treaty?
If #MeToo means anything, it is time we add gender as a legitimate basis for asylum under the Refugee Convention. The statistics from the U.N.’s Global Study on Homicide makes this crystal clear. It is time countries put their money where their mouth is by updating the Refugee Convention, as they have done once before, to include “gender” as a basis of persecution. This may be challenging, particularly given the Trump administration’s fundamental objections to international law, but that is no excuse for ignoring one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time.