Recent horrifying reports of battered women and their families from Central America seeking asylum in the U.S. have generated a mix of compassion, confusion, and concern. As a recent New York Times profile points out: “Here in Guatemala, the homicide rate for women is more than three times the global average. In El Salvador, it is nearly six times. In Honduras, it is one of the highest in the world — almost 12 times the global average.” Yet skeptical Americans—even those sympathetic to the plight of refugees and victims of abuse—ask whether the U.S. can or should accommodate the vast numbers of women worldwide affected by violence; and some point out that we do not even protect our own women adequately from gender-based violence.
What can we do for women fleeing femicide, and what do we owe them? The answer is “not everything—but a lot more.” A rights-based, feminist foreign policy, including but not limited to gender-based asylum, could help blunt the toll of violence–and serve the long-term interest of the United States. The Trump Administration’s cuts in foreign aid, punitive immigration policies, and undermining of gender violence prevention efforts have the opposite effect.
While gender violence is ubiquitous, the Central American countries generating the current surge at the U.S. border host extraordinary levels of femicide that are specifically traceable to their political conditions and history. Womanstats domestic violence and murder scales chronicle the extent of this often-lethal abuse of women and impunity (while some data is missing or difficult to capture, see especially DV-Practice-1 and Murder Scale-4 for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). Central America’s femicide epidemic fits the social pattern discussed in my recent book on gender violence: economic and security crises, conflicted modernization, and the social disruption of mobility increase the supply of perpetrators, the vulnerability of victims, weak state capacity and will to respond, and a typical post-conflict stagnation and resurgence of patriarchal practices.
The killing of women in such societies is not a personal, cultural or developmental problem; it is a security problem with national and international roots that requires a policy response. A generation of U.S. policy is implicated in Central America’s collapse: from U.S. support of bloody proxy wars to propping up corrupt governments, from importing drugs to exporting arms, from deporting California gang leaders to curtailing temporary protected status of Central Americans displaced by climate disasters. Building a (physical or legal) wall will do nothing to stop desperate people who state that flight is their only option for survival despite their awareness of the risks of the journey.
The U.S. cannot and should not offer asylum to every victim of gender violence, but we can afford a selective program of gender-based asylum—and we cannot afford not to renew our complementary global investments in conflict resolution, sustainable development, and women’s empowerment in our neighboring states. No form of asylum means open borders; receiving refugees is an international legal obligation with a long-standing highly-developed vetting process and a relatively small resource requirement. Refugees are not a security threat, they do not compete economically with U.S. citizens, and historically refugees have contributed tremendously to America’s growth in all fields. Moreover, it is smart security policy to reinvest in the mid-2010’s U.S. aid programs of targeted anti-crime, anti-corruption, and anti-femicide partnerships including rule of law, capacity-building, and civil society assistance—programs that were just beginning to have a measurable effect on improving Central American human rights and curbing migration under the Obama administration.
Gender based asylum recognizes that women fleeing for their lives may struggle to fit the model created for mostly male political dissidents, and expands our understanding of the impact of persecution by private parties—when it is enabled or neglected by the state. Women fleeing femicide would only qualify for gender-based asylum under the current U.S. standard when they could demonstrate a life-threatening and systematic pattern of abuse in which their own government either participated directly or systemically failed to offer protection; such as the Alvarado case of a Guatemalan abuse survivor married to an Army officer her government refused to prosecute. More typically, gender-based asylum must be based on state persecution on account of gender as a “recognizable social category”–such as women’s rights advocacy, sexual orientation or gender identity, or refusal to submit to gender-biased practices such as FGM or forced marriage in a country with gender-biased laws. More broadly, international bodies like the Inter-American and European Human Rights Courts have recognized their member states’ “due diligence” obligation to protect victims of femicide by family members when these governments failed to take action against repeated complaints or to investigate and prosecute after their deaths; these decisions have led to legal reforms in Mexico, Brazil, and Turkey and could be used as a manageable standard to screen gender based asylum claims and adjudicate state responsibility. In the U.S., the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings and the National Immigrant Justice Center represent asylum seekers and advocate for expanding U.S. policy to give parity to gender based asylum with other forms of refugee consideration. However, recent U.S. immigration law has tragically narrowed the grounds for seeking asylum for the generalized violence by gang members that affects most Central American migrants–and U.S. policy has never extended to the majority of victims of domestic violence and has wavered even from the current grounds in recent cases.
We can and should do more for the small sub-set of doubly vulnerable femicide refugees from failing states, including gender-based asylum in the short run—coupled with smart human security assistance and comprehensive immigration reform in the long run. We owe it to them—and to ourselves, for our interdependent troubled region.
Alison Brysk is the Mellichamp Professor of Global Governance at the University of California Santa Barbara and a co-PI of Womanstats.
Hudson, Valerie. 2017. “Feminist Foreign Policy,” in Alison Brysk and Michael Stohl (eds.) Expanding Human Rights. Edward Elgar Publishing, UK.
Brysk, Alison. 2018. The Struggle for Freedom From Fear: Contesting Violence Against Women at the Frontiers of Globalization. Oxford University Press.