Another Small Step

March 29, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- They are safe now. The two girls, 6-year-old Shade and 5-year-old Lara, will stay with their mother and stay in their country. The mother, Lydia Oluloro, will be spared the choice she described between leaving her daughters with an abusive father or taking them with her to an abusive culture.

An immigration judge resolved Lydia's Choice. Last week he lifted the order to deport the Nigerian woman who had been married, had given birth, and been divorced in the United States. He ruled that sending her back would, in the jargon of immigration law, cause ''extreme hardship'' to her children who were U.S. citizens.

The hardship in this case wasn't economic or political. The threat was not from a government or a leader. The danger was the virtual certainty that if these girls were relocated from Portland, Oregon, to their mother's homeland, they would be assaulted as she had been at 4 years old. They would be assaulted the way their mother's mother's mothers had been for perhaps a thousand years.

Shade and Lara would have their genitals attacked with a blade. One and then the other would have her clitoris cut out along with her labia minor. One and then the other would be stitched together with barely room for urinating and menstruating. They would be mutilated in the name of tradition.

Judge Kendall Warren ruled to protect them, saying, ''This court attempts to respect traditional cultures, but this is cruel and serves no known medical purpose.''

So, two girls were saved from a ritual that maims two million a year across the world. And another small step was taken toward redefining abuse of women.

Until these last few years, the abuse of women never quite made the world's agenda. Rape was a private assault, wife-battering a family affair. Sexual slavery was about sex, not slavery. Gender discrimination was considered a matter of tradition, like music or dress.

Now our eyes are opened and our vocabulary increased. From Bosnia, we saw rape as a deliberate political act. From Thailand, we heard from thousands of Burmese girls tricked into sexual slavery while the officials winked. From India we learned of bride-burning. And from Africa we bore witness to genital mutilation and the fight to end it.

Slowly the terrible things that happen to women are being understood as human-rights abuses. At the United Nations Conference on Human Rights last summer, women's groups from every culture signed the same petition saying: ''We demand gender violence to be recognized as a violation of human rights.'' And at last, the U.S. State Department includes women's rights when tallying the world's records of human-rights abuses.

In our own country, the policy of offering refuge or asylum on these grounds has been slow to change. In theory, anyone who has been severely harassed, persecuted, can ask for asylum here. But in practice, it's granted mostly to people fleeing communism or to men in political cases.

As Deborah Anker of Harvard's Immigrant and Refugee Program said, ''The kinds of harm women face have been traditionally trivialized and considered private.'' Slowly, gender claims have begun to appear -- claims by women's-rights advocates fleeing governments, claims by victims of political rape, claims by wives battered in countries that don't protect them, and now by women fearing this female ritual.

Lydia Oluloro's claims were made for her daughters' sake. The judge sidestepped the issue of asylum. She won the right to stay here on humanitarian grounds -- to protect two young U.S. citizens. But for the first time a case was won on the need to protect females from forced genital mutilation.

Will this open some vast new floodgate of refugees? Most girls are cut by this blade while they are as young as Shade and Lara. Few 5-year-olds will find their way here to beg refuge. The struggle to uproot this ''tradition'' will have to continue on its own home turf.

But if we are to take mutilation seriously in the world, and in our foreign policy, we have to take it seriously in our own rules about refugees and asylum. They are one way we show our values to the world, one way we define persecution and offer protection. The forced genital mutilation of young girls fits all the definitions of persecution we apply to any refugee. The brutal assault by a knife on the sexual organ is persecution of the most extreme -- and the most female -- sort.

Last week, two girls were rescued by their mother and by a judge. Just two out of two million. Sometimes you have to defend human rights two at a time.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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