Worldwide, an estimated 35% of women have experienced family or domestic violence. In some countries, the figure is closer to 70%. Not all those at risk will be entitled to international refugee protection, however. Only those who meet the definition of a “refugee” can make a valid claim for asylum.
Women fleeing family and domestic violence must deal with a unique range of legal and practical hurdles before the threat of being returned will truly have passed.
Refugee protection for gendered violence
The international refugee convention of 1951 defines a “refugee” as a person outside their own country who fears persecution because of their race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
This legal definition was devised in Europe in the aftermath of the second world war, primarily with the political refugee in mind. Although the convention isn’t limited to those fleeing political persecution, women fleeing gender-based violence must overcome a number of hurdles to show they meet the definition’s criteria.
The most fundamental requirement for refugee protection is that the applicant be outside her country of origin. This alone precludes most women from accessing international protection. The cost of travel and the danger it entails – women and girls face heightened risks of sexual violence, trafficking and exploitation during their journeys – make seeking asylum a dangerous endeavour.
For women living under repressive regimes such as in Saudi Arabia, where permission to travel is required from a male guardian, leaving the country may be impossible. For those who do leave, trying to prove they are at risk of persecution poses further challenges.
Beyond obvious physical signs of mistreatment, obtaining evidence of domestic violence is notoriously difficult. In most refugee cases, the primary means of establishing the applicant’s claim to asylum is her testimony. Lasting effects of trauma, potentially significant cultural and language barriers, and being surrounded by often male interpreters, decision-makers and legal representatives, can make the burden of proof for such women overwhelming.
Moreover, the refugee definition itself was not designed with the experiences of women in mind. In cases like al-Qunun’s, failure to conform to religious expectations will likely play a role. But the tendency of refugee status decision-makers has been to see violence by family members as a private matter, and not attributable to one of the five grounds of persecution: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group and political opinion.
When refugee claims involving family and domestic violence succeed, it is usually on the basis women may constitute a particular social group. Accepting that women in a particular country constitute a particular social group allows refugee status decision-makers to provide protection to women who fear persecution because they are women.
The UNHCR states that women are a clear example of a social group “defined by innate and immutable characteristics, and who are frequently treated differently than men”.
À lire aussi : Do abused women need asylum? 4 essential reads
However, the worldwide prevalence of family and domestic violence, coupled with concerns about “opening the floodgates” to women seeking asylum, have seen this approach to gender-based refugee claims rejected on a regular basis.