A haven for women

March 21, 2004

TO MARK International Women's Day on March 8, Amnesty International issued a grim account of the violence perpetrated against women around the world:

In Eastern Congo, women emerged from the war with an HIV-infection rate of 54 percent, a figure attributed to a campaign of rape. Women and children account for 75 percent of the 2.9 million displaced persons in Colombia. The major cause of death of European women ages 16 to 44 is not disease but domestic violence, according to the Council of Europe.

As the Amnesty report illustrates, women suffer human rights abuses simply because of their gender. Given that dire assessment, we are heartened by news that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is considering granting political asylum to women who suffer domestic abuse and other forms of severe violence in their homelands. Mr. Ashcroft has an opportunity to make a difference in individual lives here and abroad by showing that governments have a responsibility to protect all their citizens.

The asylum petition before Mr. Ashcroft involves Rodi Alvarado Pena, a battered woman from Guatemala who fled to California in 1995 after police in her homeland repeatedly refused to help her. She says that she endured years of abuse from a soldier husband who beat, raped and sodomized her. She tried to leave him, but he always found her. She sought help from the police, but they refused, saying it was a matter between her and her husband. Guatemala's courts wouldn't grant her a divorce without her husband's consent. Ms. Alvarado's case has been grinding through the immigration system for nearly a decade.

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno intervened on her behalf, ordering immigration officials to draft rules approving asylum for domestic violence victims. But the change in administrations delayed consideration of the matter.

Now, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration issues, has nearly finished drafting regulations that would govern asylum petitions in gender-specific cases. Political asylum can be granted if a petitioner shows he or she has been persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The latter category, under which gender-specific cases fall, has not been fully defined in the past.

The department, to its credit, has supported Ms. Alvarado's request for political asylum, and has conferred with Justice Department lawyers on proposed rules that would pertain to Ms. Alvarado's case and other gender-based claims.

Ms. Alvarado's petition highlights the plight of women in countries where cultural attitudes, social norms and religious law deny women basic rights or, worse, permit the persecution of women. There are examples aplenty: acid burnings in Bangladesh, honor killings in Jordan, stonings in Nigeria. If Mr. Ashcroft grants Ms. Alvarado's petition, his decision could affect hundreds of similar pending claims. And he would send a message that violence against women will not be tolerated here or abroad.

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