6 July 2000 Edition

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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.


A women refugee's thoughts

The conflict in Sierra Leone is one of the best examples of how European economies benefit from war - as both the rebels and the government have traded with diamonds to finance their armies - and of the disinterest of international bodies towards a conflict resolution policy. Mercy Peters is a Sierra Leone journalist. She was forced to flee her country as a refugee due to the political situation. She is now living in a hostel in Donegal town under the Dublin government's direct provision directives. Here, she talks about the circumstances that compel African women to become refugees.

``Mismanagement by successive governments has landed most African countries in the mire they are in today. Unattended and unchecked, this has brought about economic, political and social ills.

The practice of polygamy has its setbacks, which fall mainly on women. Men may be free to find wives they can barely support. At the end of the day, each wife has to look out for her children. That is, their education and welfare. It is common to see women hooking in the streets of Africa in order to provide for their children. Rain or shine, they are out there, the husband and the state caring less. Many children have to do without schooling, due to lack of finances for their school fees.

And as if this was not enough, domestic violence against women has slipped in to become routine. Women are beaten up by their spouses and there is no advocate or challenge on their behalf. Men believe that the woman's place is at the background and thus she is silence to standing up or as it is said, for speaking out of turn. There are hundreds of cases where women have been injured for life through these beatings. Some, pregnant at the time of the abuse, have had painful termination of their pregnancies. Others, not so lucky to go through their pain, have died.

There are also women who had their reproductive organs damaged for life, from blows and kicks aimed to them. Women have lost use of part of their bodies such as eyes, fingers, and limbs from the abuse they get.

Then there are is war, as in my own country. The husbands, the brothers and sons take up arms, get killed and with their deaths increase the number of widows and orphans.

In refugee camps across Africa, women are sexually abused by unscrupulous men. Female circumcision has deep traditional roots. Failure to be circumcised results in the woman being excluded from society or from being recognised as a woman per se. I was blessed to have been born to parents who were enlightened and could not put their children through that hell. The surgeons or the sewers, as we call them, do not use the basic anaesthetic for their patients. Some girls die. Some contract infections that will be with them for life. Some need special attention during childbirth. For many, the removal of that part of their bodies is like the peeling away of their dignity as women.

Little wonder it is that with these demons to conquer, women eventually migrate, often making long and dangerous journeys to the unknown. Journeys in search of sanity, in search of security, in search of better lives for their children, not wanting them to succumb to the fate that was theirs.

The need to preserve and protect drives them to give up the once safety of their homes for the uncertainty of promised and relative security. As a journalist and a woman, I could not cope with the constant disguises employed in moving from one hiding place to another. There was fear from down my guts. The kind that spreads steadily, that keeps you awake and your ears pick out each minute detail of the night sounds. The bullets that fly past and the footsteps of army boots marching the latest victim to his death, not knowing if those foot steps will be coming for you next. Not only is that fear frustrating, it robs you of all beliefs about justice, equality and above all, about freedom.''


An Phoblacht
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