Afflicted Women Find Hope In Canada's Refugee Rules

One year after adopting gender guidelines for assessing asylum claims, Canada has become a model for others

JULIA'S husband beat her regularly, but police in Ecuador would do nothing. Once, after she complained, the officers laughed.

After nearly 10 years of being beaten and raped by her husband, Julia (not her real name) divorced him. When he threatened her life in 1991, she fled to Canada.

In one of the first rulings of its kind, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) granted Julia refugee status because of state discrimination against her gender. In making its decision, the Board said ``the unwillingness of the state to protect `Ecuadoran women subject to wife abuse' may amount to persecution.''

With Julia's case, decided one year ago today, Canada became the first nation to adopt gender guidelines to assess refugee claims. Now many cases previously labeled ``domestic disputes,'' are seen in Canada as systematic state persecution when authorities routinely ignore a woman's pleas.

Most Western countries grant asylum to people persecuted by governments because of their politics, religion, or race. But for women from countries and cultures where spouse-beatings and other abuses against women are widely tolerated, proving persecution has been difficult because their cases did not meet traditional definitions of ``persecution.''

Canadian refugee officials now weigh whether a woman applying for asylum sought official help to stop domestic abuse, but was ignored, and if the woman's country has historically ignored violence against women. If the answer is yes in both cases, Canada's IRB is likely to let her stay.

Serving a growing number

Canada's guidelines are not law, but they have opened a window of escape for a small but growing number of women. Opponents of the guidelines predicted a flood of applications, but that has not happened.

In 1993, Canada's IRB heard 31,000 claims for refugee status, most of which came from men. On average, about half the claims are accepted. But in the past 11 months, at least 150 women have sought asylum under Canada's gender guidelines. In more than 100 of those cases, asylum was granted. Another 200 such cases are pending, an IRB official says.

``Before these guidelines, [the IRB] would have said: `We believe you, but you don't qualify under the definition of a refugee,' '' says Marie-Louise C, a Montreal attorney who represents refugees. ``It has given us credibility we didn't have before. It increases the chances of being accepted and it has changed [IRB members'] understanding tremendously.''

One of Ms. Cots clients, a Saudi woman named Nada who fled persecution for her refusal to wear a Muslim veil, was the catalyst for the new refugee guidelines in 1992. Threatened with deportation from Canada after the IRB denied her request for asylum, Nada went public. Her case was immediately taken up by women's groups and the media. Although the government of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had a gender policy in the works, it had no plans to implement it. In early 1993, Nada was permitted to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds.

``The guidelines have been criticized by some on the basis that they attempt to impose Western cultural values on other countries,'' says Nurjehan Mawani, chairman of the IRB. ``We cannot acquiesce to this premise without abandoning the notion of the indivisibility of human rights.''

Guidelines serve as a model

Canada is now widely considered a model for its recognition of gender discrimination. No other country has similar guidelines. But the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is facing several high-profile women's refugee cases, including a Nigerian woman seeking asylum because she fears her daughters will be subjected to the practice of genital mutilation back home.

Rising public concern is pushing the INS in the direction Canada has taken, say US refugee experts like Nancy Kelly. A Harvard researcher who co-wrote proposed gender guidelines now being considered by the INS, Ms. Kelly says, ``Canada is definitely at the forefront in providing protection to women applying for asylum. We were looking to Canada for guidance as we wrote these [US] guidelines.''

Despite its leading role, Canada has problems with its new policy. Critics say there is a lack of uniformity in applying the gender guidelines because the IRB's approximately 230 judges are not legally bound to use them. Another key problem is that most women deserving of refugee status in Canada never make it because visa officers in Canadian embassies around the world do not use the new guidelines.

``The guidelines here at home have helped a lot - but our refugee determination system abroad is a mess,'' says David Matas, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees and an immigrantion lawyer. ``There's no fairness, no proper application of the guidelines.... If there's a case like Nada in Ankara [Turkey] or Bangkok, nobody knows about it.''

Even though she will not speak to reporters now, Nada's public statements last year remain compelling. ``The discrimination and repression I lived with in Saudi Arabia had political and not cultural roots,'' Nada wrote in a commentary published last March. ``This is the time for Canada to take a stand for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of oppressed women.''

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