Grounds for Asylum

After two years in jail, Fauziya Kasinga had her day in US court. Recently, the Board of Immigration Appeals heard her request for political asylum. The board also considered, for the first time, whether female genital mutilation (FGM) constitutes persecution, to qualify a potential victim for refugee status as defined by the Refugee Act.

Ms. Kasinga fled her native Togo to escape an arranged marriage and the brutal tribal rite of FGM, estimated to have been inflicted on more than 85 million women worldwide. In the long struggle to ensure that women are treated fairly as individuals, this issue joins the right to vote, to be free from slavery and domestic violence, and to be treated as an equal at work.

But in Ms. Kasinga's case, an immigration judge ruled that she was not a "credible alien"and was not being singled out for persecution, since all females in Kasinga's tribe are subjected to the same treatment.

On the contrary, Kasinga does have a strong case, and she should be granted asylum. By law, applicants can win asylum in the US if they are found to have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. Kasinga's lawyers argue that she is part of such a social group and are pressing for a legal framework that would allow the threat she faces to be grounds for asylum in carefully defined circumstances.

CRITICS worry that opening the door to victims of FGM will, in fact, release the floodgates of asylum-seekers. Yet in Canada, the first country to make the threat of such mutilation grounds for granting refugee status, only a few women have sought protection. Immigration officials say most females under threat in their native countries are too young and do not have the financial wherewithal to flee.

Guidelines proposed by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service would also limit the number of such refugees. In a legal brief, the immigration service has asked the board of appeals to rule that fear of FGM could justify asylum - but only for those women who would be forced into the most extreme forms of it if sent home. That would include Kasinga, but exclude those who endured the practice as young girls or those subjected only "to ostracism or economic pressure" for refusing to comply.

The practice is increasingly regarded not only as a women's-rights issue, but also as a basic human-rights issue. In addition to the physical harm it inflicts, it denies women both equality and independent choice in caring for themselves.

Clear guidelines for immigration judges will help on the American end. So will financial support for international aid organizations working to educate village leaders about the cruelty and fundamental indignity of FGM. Clearly, awareness has reached new levels in the world at large, and should now begin to effect change in local traditions.

Such awareness also should include recognizing what's happening in the United States. Acting on reports that FGM is observed by some immigrants living in the US, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado has introduced legislation to make it illegal here.

Those who practice FGM in their own countries don't like Westerners telling them how to live their lives. Many regard FGM as beneficial, and not all women and girls object. It's when members of a tribe do object and do see the harm being done that changes become possible.

Kasinga's father, for example, opposed both polygamous marriage and FGM. According to Kasinga, after watching his sister tied up and mutilated as a young girl, he vowed never to subject his own daughters to the practice. And he kept that promise. Only after his death was Kasinga ordered to undergo the procedure.

International human rights groups such as the New York-based Equality Now are working and must continue to work directly with nongovernmental organizations in countries where FGM is prevalent. Their aim should be to change local customs from within. The solution lies in education - in dialogue with local people, and with women like Fauziya Kasinga, who believed she deserved better. Fundamentally this is a matter of affirming the dignity, equality, and integrity of individual women - qualities which are inherent and not bestowed by male benevolence.

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