Lifting the curtain on gender specific persecution
ICCL Women's Committee launches report
A startling 75%-90% of the world's refugee population is estimated by the UNHCR to be women and children. Yet discussion of refugees tends to concentrate exclusively on the `male' experience of persecution and treats women refugees as appendages of the male, very rarely dealing with the distinct difficulties which women face.
The Women's Committee of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties launched an important report on Monday 26 June dealing with some of the difficulties specific to women refugees and asylum seekers as a result of their gender - issues largely ignored amongst Ireland's policy makers. The report, an important document, states: ``The archetypal image of the political refugee, fleeing persecution due to direct involvement in conventional political activity often fails to correspond with the reality of many women's experiences. The circumstances that give rise to women's fear of persecution are often quite unique to women.''
The report gives examples of gender specific persecution, including ``infanticide, female genital mutilation, bride burning, forced marriage, domestic violence, forced abortion or compulsory sterilisation, strict dress codes and restrictions on movement, employment or education... Draconian penalties may be imposed in retribution for non compliance with these social mores''.
Above all, women are the object of organised rape as a weapon of war against a race. The prevalence of rape as a weapon of war in the Balkans was widely discussed at the Dublin UNHCR conference last November. Rape, in some societies, leads to the ostracism of the victim, if not to `debt of honour' killings or brutalisation of women whose `value' has been wiped out by rape and abuse.
The report warns that ``the appearance of sexual violence in a claim (for asylum) should never lead to a conclusion that the alleged harm is an instance of purely personal harm''. The ICCL report states clearly that ``the fact that violence against women is universal and widespread is irrelevant when determining whether gender-specific violence constitutes persecution''. Fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion are the defining grounds for a refugee, under the 1951 UN Convention.
At least the 1996 Irish Refugee Act explicitly recognises gender and sexual orientation as grounds for fear of persecution, though some other EU states, including England, do not. It is an important and progressive inclusion which undoubtedly makes all the more unseemly the haste of the Department of Justice to prevent refugees reaching Ireland's shores from other EU countries, including England.
This short report not only deals with the particular oppression of women which may cause them to seek asylum abroad. It also deals with the particular difficulties faced by women refugees in the process of seeking asylum - the enormous cultural, linguistic, social, and legal difficulties which women have in preparing and presenting their case for refugee status.
It presents many recommendations which the ICCL hopes will inform government and statutory agencies in their processing of women refugees' claims for asylum and their reception and settlement.
The recommendations were enthusiastically endorsed by Nial Crowley, Chief Executive Officer of the recently established Equality Authority - though everyone at the launch would have known just how far these `guidelines for best practice' depart from present practice of dealing with asylum seekers in Ireland. Crowley, who has worked over the years with Travellers, talked with some excitement of the future development of what is only a new body, the Equality Authority, set up as a result of the Good Friday Agreement.
The report is important, if only as a touchstone of humanity against which the `shambles' of the Dublin government's policy on refugees and asylum seekers can be judged. It opens out an agenda for the development of the Equality Authority, and some of the changes which the Good Friday Agreement can bring to Ireland. Above all, it raises issues of the oppression of women that have largely remained hidden in our society.
BY ROISIN DE ROSA