Featured

Domestic Violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bringing the Issue to the UN

UPR cycle
Illustration of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Process from The Advocates’ resource Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation, and Advocacy

The UN Human Rights Council provides opportunities for non-governmental organizations to pursue human rights advocacy at the UN level through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process for reviewing the human rights records of States. Before the start of a particular country’s review, non-governmental organizations can submit a “stakeholder report” to the Council about the overall human rights situation or focusing on a specific issue in the country, relying on desk research and firsthand information.

Reporting on domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina

As an International Justice intern with The Advocates for Human Rights, I had the opportunity to work on the organization’s UPR stakeholder report about domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In my research, I focused on understanding victims’ experiences with key institutions that provide support for victims of domestic violence, such as centers for social work, courts, police, and safe houses. I found out that victims lack access to resources due to insufficient funding, poor multi-sectoral collaboration, and inadequate responses from some of the key actors mentioned above.

Based on this research, I assisted with compiling a report that The Advocates and our local partner Ženski Centar Trebinje submitted to the Human Right Council in March 2019 for the UPR of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which will take place in November 2019. Apart from shedding light on the issues that victims of domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina face, our report put forth recommendations for the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to improve its responses to domestic violence. You may find the report here.

A meaningful way to get involved with issues in my home country

Being from Bosnia and Herzegovina, I really appreciated the opportunity to get involved with this report. As much as I am grateful for my education in the United States, I wish that I could get physically involved with social movements and activism in my home country. While I was working on this report, my city held a protest because the Center for Social Work did not adequately respond to a domestic violence case perpetrated by a father against his daughters. Their mother issued a plea via Facebook, sharing how unsupported she felt by the institutions whose sole responsibility was to protect her daughters. Hearing her story made it even more important to engage with the issue of domestic violence.

Although I was not able to protest, I could at least voice her concerns in our report. By translating her story and bringing it to a space devoted to human rights, I made it possible for the relevant international actors to hear her story. To me, The Advocates’ work implies carrying messages from the local actors to international institutions, bridging the physical distance between the two, overcoming language barriers if there are any, and navigating the bureaucratic nature of international institutions.

Looking forward

While I cannot guarantee that delivering her message will have an impact on the case, nor that this report will eliminate domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina overnight, I recognize that advocacy at the UN, as a well-established mechanism, is a useful first step. It serves as a platform to raise awareness about issues and put pressure on government officials to implement the suggested solutions. Based on the recommendations from the 2014 UPR cycle Bosnia and Herzegovina established free legal aid clinics, but yet has to implement many more recommendations.

As part of the UPR process, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s government delegation and UN member countries will engage in an interactive dialogue this November. Often, countries raise questions and suggest solutions based on stakeholder reports. I hope that they will voice the concerns that we included in the report and make a formal expectation for the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to implement our recommendations, as important steps toward the elimination of domestic violence.

By Ana Gvozdić, a rising junior at Macalester College studying Political Science and Environmental Studies.  She was a spring 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

To learn more about advocacy, check out The Advocates’ manual Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation, and Advocacy”, and especially Chapter 9, which focuses on Advocacy at the United Nations.

Advertisements
Featured

Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration

Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. The Advocates for Human Rights is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum and trafficking cases and documenting their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes. 

In February 2019, Board member Peggy Grieve shared the experiences of our asylum clients with and made recommendations to the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.  Peggy delivered the following oral intervention during the Committee’s Half-day General Discussion on Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration.

Dear Members of the Committee:

From The Advocates for Human Rights’ direct legal representation of Northern Triangle clients, we have determined:

(1) children, even when traveling in the company of migrating adults, are vulnerable to sex trafficking; and

(2) after arrival in the U.S., adults and children are at risk of labor trafficking.

Two examples. One client entered the U.S. as a 15-year-old girl with her father. A family friend coerced her into leaving home. They traveled to live several states away where this friend groomed her to be sex-trafficked.

A client entered the U.S. without inspection with her boyfriend. He brought her to live with his family.  Before long, he demanded that she repay him $10,000 he had paid smugglers for entry. He sexually assaulted her. She was forced into a low-paid, illegal job to cover her “debt.”

No one is going to believe you. You don’t have a voice. Here you are nobody,” she was told.

To help women and girls, victims of trafficking, survive, heal, and ultimately integrate into society and live a life free of further exploitation, a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach that provides survivors with immigration and other legal protections and adequate support services is critical.  The criminal justice approach focused on punishing traffickers, by itself, is insufficient to address the human rights of sex and labor trafficked survivors.

On behalf of our clients, the Advocates for Human Rights thanks the Committee for this important initiative.

The Advocates for Human Rights encourages the Committee to consider the experience of our women and girl clients, as well as the recommendation for a victim-centered approach to identify and respond to meet the needs of trafficked women and girls in the context of global migration.

Featured

Legislation: Is It Ever Enough?

Processed with MOLDIV
Photo by ALICE MULOMBE MUYAMBO 

In 1985, the Republic of Zambia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It was another 23 years before legislation was enacted in the form of the 2011 Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act.  Its Preamble bold declared it “An Act to provide for the protection of victims of gender-based violence,”  prompting a sharp rise in the numbers of reported cases as non-governmental organizations conducted nationwide campaigns to inform the public of the new legislation.

On paper, the law was a step in the right direction, fighting widespread violence against women and thereby challenging years of traditional gender roles by criminalizing a wide range of abuses based on sex, from economic to physical, and emotional, verbal and psychological abuse.

However, when the legislation was put to the test in the Courtroom, it failed to meet its own high standard. Cases of domestic violence, sexual violence, and gender-based violence against women continued to be tried using outdated laws such as the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Codes. Many of the victims of these shortfalls in the law are nameless and have no safety net when their cases fall through.

Take Jessie (not her real name) for example. A 25-year-old magistrate who graduated from a premier Law School in Lusaka, she was married to a military man whom she met while at law school. Their year-long marriage was stained by violent outbursts, physical violence, public humiliation and isolation from friends and family– all the things that the Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act was meant to protect her from.

Finally on December 3, 2015, Jessie’s military employee husband beat her unconscious. Jessie woke up in Kabwe General Hospital, blood drenched and deformed with two deep cuts to the head. She accepted support from her colleagues and family and especially from the justice system that she had worked so hard to be a part of.

Instead, she woke up to humiliating headlines in two public newspapers, “Army officer batters magistrate wife,” read one newspaper; four national radio stations carried the story without bothering to verifying any of the facts.

Physically, the wounds took four months to heal.  Her employers, however, demanded that she report to work for two weeks after the incident.

Meanwhile, her husband was arrested and released when she dropped the case due to pressure from her mother, who was concerned by what friends and family would say. After all, Jessie was a successful magistrate; her parents were marriage councillors who had been married for more than twenty years, she had a daughter – her mother reminded her – who needed both parents, and there was the Zambian proverb that urges women to “stay strong” in the face of turbulent times. Shipikisha club, they call it.

So, she took the advice of her mother and dropped the case against her husband, hoping that his three days in custody would force him to reflect on his behavior and start a journey to change.

Although the Penal Code gives the state the right to prosecute cases on behalf of victims, even after they give statements stating that they wish to drop them, the Judiciary did not take kindly to Jessie’s actions. When she reported for work, she was greeted by hostile stares and a suspension letter from the Deputy Director charging her with conduct likely to bring the Judiciary into disrepute, a vague term that can be used to cover a wide range of incidents. There was no provision under any code allowing or sanctioning the suspension, and the offense she was charged with carried a punishment of a written warning. The experience left her feeling victimised. She was given seven days within which to exculpate herself, and after she did, she did not hear from her employers for nine months.

Her husband in the meantime, continued to work for the Zambian Army.  He has not faced any sanctions from his employers or accountability for his behaviour by the public media, and his life continues as before.

Numerous letters later, Jessie was reinstated, with a thinly veiled threat that she must ensure that the incident never recurred if she wanted to keep her job. This seemed contrary to the official position of the Zambian Judiciary, which had taken a strong stance against gender-based violence against women in the media and was launching a fast-track court in Kabwe.

So, how does one pick up the pieces after being abused by all the people and institutions that are supposed to protect you? You do better. Jessie is a strong advocate for women’s rights in the workplace and uses the Anti-Gender-Based Violence Act in the Courtroom. With the help of friends and other victims, she overcame her initial misgivings about handling cases similar to her own, and she now sits on the bench in Monze Zambia.

Still, Jessie’s experience begs the question: is legislation enough to end violence against women?

By Mubanga Kalimamukwento, Hubert Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellow 2018/2019 – University of Minnesota, who is doing her professional affiliation with the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

Expanding the Technical Expertise of Women’s Rights Defenders in 2018

FeaturedExpanding the Technical Expertise of Women’s Rights Defenders in 2018

Women’s rights are human rights. We make up half the world’s population, and therefore, half its potential. But unfortunately, laws, practices, and people’s attitudes do not always take into account the legacy of discrimination in women’s lives and the fact that women and girls routinely face violence and oppression.

We know that, when we lift up women, we see a ripple effect that goes far beyond women and girls and into the world. For example, when we see greater income equality across both women and men, poverty diminishes through the generations. When women hold assets or gain income, that money is more likely to be spent on their family’s nutrition, medicines, and housing. As a result, children are healthier and the community does better. When girls pursue a secondary education, they marry later and have fewer children. Their risk of domestic violence is lower compared to child brides who are forced to marry.

It Takes a Multifaceted Approach

From ending violence against women to stopping discrimination to empowering women.

What is The Advocates for Human Rights doing about it?

  • We change laws by analyzing and commenting on laws before they are passed to make sure they are the strongest they can be.
  • We monitor and document violations of women’s rights and make recommendations to fix the pitfalls and barriers to women.
  • We build the capacity of civil society to hold their governments accountable and safeguard women’s rights.
  • We provide our expertise to the United Nations to elaborate best practice standards on violence against women and evaluate on-the-ground practices.

We Were Busy in 2018!

Ending Violence Against Women

  • We completed the final two trainings for the Russian Legal Training Academy for Women’s Human Rights. Sixteen Russian-speaking lawyers from 8 countries in the Former Soviet Union were trained on how to use UN and European mechanisms when all domestic remedies have failed. The second training, in Chisinau, Moldova, led by Jennifer Prestholdt, Theresa Dykoschak, and Amy Bergquist, addressed using UN mechanisms to defend women’s rights. Local NGO, Promo-LEX, was our host partner for this second session. Rosalyn Park, Amy Bergquist and Theresa Dykoschak completed the third session this October in Tbilisi, Georgia. Local NGO, Anti-Violence Network of Georgia, was our host partner for the third and final session.

    • Rosalyn Park and volunteer Veronica Clark attended the Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) Network annual conference in Malta in late October. They conducted interviews on the backlash against women’s rights across Europe.

    • Robin Phillips attended the “European Network for the Work with Perpetrators of Domestic Violence” (WWP EN) conference in Prague, Czech Republic in October with Denise Gamache of the Battered Women’s Justice Project. Our participation builds on our 2016 report, Batterer Intervention Programs: Recommendations for Effective Batterer Intervention Programs in Central & Eastern Europe & the former Soviet Union.

    • At the invitation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Rosalyn Park was in Astana, Kazakhstan to present on international best practices for legal reform on domestic violence. The conference, “Preventing Domestic Violence through Effective Collaboration: A New Stage of Development of Crisis Centers,” was organized by OSCE, UN Women, UNFPA, and the Union of Crisis Centers in Kazakhstan and aimed at strengthening the work of the crisis centers and raising awareness on preventing domestic violence.

Stopping Discrimination

  • At the request of the UN Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane, The Advocates undertook research to highlight the benefits of promoting female inclusion in traditionally male-dominated industries and identify ways to support the women in these sectors. Fish & Richardson and Dechert LLP provided pro bono assistance to help conduct the research. The Advocates presented its findings in Geneva at the annual meeting of the UN Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane. The report will be published in early 2019.

    • Theresa Dykoschak, Staff Attorney, was in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in early November as an expert panelist at a conference for systems actors from Central Asian countries on eliminating gender-based violence against women and girls. The conference was organized by UN Women, UNFPA, UNDP and UNICEF.

Empowering Women and Human Rights Defenders

  • Robin Phillips and Rosalyn Park trained 25 lawyers from 15 countries for the seventh round of the Women’s Human Rights Training Institute (WHRTI) in Sofia, Bulgaria. In partnership with the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation and Equality Now, WHRTI strives to build the capacity of young lawyers from Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union for litigation on women’s rights issues.

    • Robin Phillips and Rosalyn Park built the capacity of civil society to hold their governments accountable to effectively respond to rape and sexual violence. At the invitation of local partner Mobilizing for Rights Associates, The Advocates trained 23 civil society members and systems actors in Marrakech, Morocco in December.

    • In March we celebrated International Women’s Day, a day to catalyze activism and to focus on advancements and challenges in women’s rights and equality. Theresa Dykoschak presented on cyberviolence and Rosalyn Park facilitated a panel discussion by the keynote speaker and performing artist, Nekessa Julia Opoti and Andrea Jenkins.

Thank you to all our supporters! We look forward to continuing the work in 2019.

By: Rosalyn Park, director of the Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

 

Featured

Representing Women Seeking Asylum in the US: Gender-Based Persecution

In reSVAW logo copypresenting several women seeking asylum in the US based on gender-based persecution, I have learned a lot and had some of my most memorable experiences as a lawyer.

  • “Nancy” is a woman from Guinea who was subjected to female genital mutilation at thirteen, and again at fourteen, and then the victim of persistent violence and rape by her husband that family, friends, her doctor, and the police were unable or unwilling to stop. She twice fled the country, but her husband found her and forced her to return home, which only led to escalating violence and prolonged imprisonment.  Her family counseled her to “accept” this treatment, and the police refused to intervene because her husband was a high ranking member of the military police.  She escaped to the US, was granted asylum, and is working to reunite with her children.
  • “Donna” is a woman from Cameroon who was the victim of levirate marriage. She was viewed as property of the family, since a dowry had been paid, so after her husband died she was required to marry one of her brothers-in-law.  When she refused, she was sexually assaulted, told she would “get used to it,” and her family and business were threatened.  She escaped to the US, was granted asylum, and has reunited with her children.
  • “Janet” is a woman from Kenya who was the victim of female genital mutilation. She was seeking protection for herself, and also to prevent having to take her daughter back to Kenya where her family would require that her daughter also undergo female genital mutilation.  She was granted withholding of removal, so that she and her daughter are safe in the US.
  • “Francis” is a woman from The Gambia who was the victim of female genital mutilation, and who sought to avoid a forced marriage to a much older man. She had secretly acted as an activist working to educate people about the risks of female genital mutilation, and her mother, at great risk to herself, persuaded her father to let Francis pursue her education.  In order to prevent the forced marriage, and to continue her education, she came to the US, sought and was granted asylum.

The primary reason these awful things happened to my clients is because they are women.  Female genital mutilation, forced marriage, levirate marriage, and ongoing domestic violence continues to happen because in some places women and girls are not viewed as fully human, endowed with the same rights as men. We should be proud that our legal system rejected that view, and instead found affirming their basic human rights worthy of protection.

A recent decision from the Attorney General has proposed to make it more difficult for women fleeing gender-based violence to get protection in the US. In Matter of A-B, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018), the Attorney General invoked a rarely used power to certify to himself a case for decision so that he could change the law in this area.  In the case, the primary issue that had been litigated was whether the applicant was credible, and the Department of Homeland Security even had agreed that private violence like domestic violence that a government cannot or will not control can be a proper basis for asylum.  The Attorney General, however, reached out to decide a broader issue, which was whether, and under what circumstances, being a victim of private criminal activity constitutes a cognizable “particular social group” for purposes of an application for asylum or withholding of removal.  Though the holding of the decision narrowly overruled a previously-decided case from the Board of Immigration Appeals the Attorney General, largely through dicta, articulated and encouraged a very restrictive view of asylum law.  The decision posits that violence inflicted by private actors, rather than governments, is generally not the type of persecution that our asylum laws were intended to address.

There are many flaws, procedural and substantive, with the decision.  The odd procedure of the case suggests that the Attorney General was searching for a vehicle to render broad policy pronouncements to restrict asylum law.  The decision states that it is not minimizing the “vile abuse” that the woman in the case suffered in the form of domestic violence by her ex-husband.  Unfortunately, the way it elevates form over substance and erects barriers for women who have been so victimized suggests otherwise.  Most fundamentally, it applies a feeble, restrictive view of asylum law, somehow drawing perceived comfort from the rather hollow observation that “the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

I believe that gender-based persecution is indeed the type of harm that our asylum laws should work to address.  It is well-established in international law that states have an obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, and punish actions by private actors. The U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) states that governments are urged to “exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by privates persons” (Art. 4(c)). General Recommendation No. 19 by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also provides that states may be “responsible for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence.” In my experience, allowing the asylum laws to protect people deprived of their basic human rights by private actors because of their gender is a powerful way for this country to stand up for the dignity of all people.  When we see this harm not as mere private acts of violence but as systematic persecution, we affirm the importance of human rights for all people.  The Attorney General’s decision, which seeks to set aside years of development of the law in order to make it more difficult for women to obtain protection, is misguided.  It will make it more difficult for women like the ones that I’ve represented to be safe and free.

The decision will make it harder, but certainly not impossible, to win these cases.  There are still helpful cases from Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country that support gender-based claims from private actor persecution.  Advocates may need to present more arguments and evidence that demonstrate governments’ failure to prevent the harms inflicted by private actors.  Use of expert witnesses to present this evidence may also be needed in more cases.  While the Attorney General’s decision is a significant setback, there are still many claims based on private actor persecution that should prevail.

In 1788, George Washington wrote “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”  We know, however, that the history of the US regarding the protection of refugees has been uneven, vacillating between openness and prioritizing human rights to times where we have turned our backs to the persecuted and failed to live up to our country’s ideals.  At times like this when we fall back, lawyers can make a difference by standing up for victims of human rights abuses.  By helping asylum seekers overcome the new hurdles placed by the Attorney General, and hopefully restoring the law to embody greater respect for freedom and human rights, we can enlist ourselves on the right side of history.  I am so glad that Nancy, Donna, Janet, Francis and others like them are safe.  But today asylum seekers, particularly women who have been victims of private actor violence, are going to need help more than ever.

Dean Eyler is Principal and Intellectual Property Litigation Chair at Gray Plant Mooty and a volunteer attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights.

Our Work: Eradicating Violence Against Women

Our Work: Eradicating Violence Against Women

Kofi Annan said this when he was secretary-general of the United Nations:

Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And, it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.

Think about that: the most pervasive violation of human rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights, through our Women’s Human Rights Program—and indeed through all of our programs—has a proud history of standing up for women and fighting against gender discrimination and violence. We are fighting at every level.

In the immediate term, we help make women safe by bringing their asylum claims to get them away from their abusers and away from the governments that refuse to protect them.

We also help at the level of changing bad laws. In North Africa, we helped bring about the repeal of laws in Morocco and Tunisia that had allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married their victims. We also were instrumental in getting Mongolia to make domestic violence a crime for the first time in its history, and in getting Croatia to recriminalize domestic violence after the government had actually taken it out of the criminal code.

Finally, we know that laws are of little use if they aren’t enforced, so we help at the level of monitoring and education. Here in Minnesota, we educated law enforcement and licensing personnel about sex trafficking, leading to a whole new focus on prosecuting the traffickers rather than the victims of trafficking. Because of this work, more than 20 different Minneapolis businesses that were fronts for sex trafficking were identified and closed.

But we all know how much more must be done. Beating and torture of domestic partners is still too often, in too many places, thought of as a family matter, and governments won’t intervene. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has decriminalized domestic violence just as Croatia did, and is also targeting and successfully shutting down human rights organizations there by claiming they are spies.

Then, of course, there is our own country, which has proclaimed by attorney general fiat that even horrendous domestic violence without government recourse should not be grounds for asylum, arresting and jailing, with “zero tolerance,” adult refugees and their children who present at our borders with a legal claim to asylum—people whose only “crime” was to flee beatings or rape or torture and seek a better life in America.

We have to help all women who suffer violence and abuse, but we cannot do our work without your help. Our budget is tiny compared to the impact we’ve had. That’s because our model is to bring the extraordinary resources of our community, including many of the best and the brightest activists and lawyers, to achieve far more than our small size and budget suggest that we could. The only thing that limits us is having the resources to train, coordinate and support even more of this amazing talent.

Many of us see the horrific things on the news and ask ourselves, “What can I do?” Here are two things you can do right now. First, call your Congressional representative to express your outrage over what our country is doing at the border.

Second, go to www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org and make a financial donation to the Advocates. Now is the time to step up, pull out your checkbook or credit card, give a little more than you thought you would, respond to the call. Speaking personally, I know from direct experience and observation, there is no better place for my family to focus our financial giving than this shining Minnesota beacon of hope called The Advocates for Human Rights.

If you look at the news and ask yourself “What can I do?” that’s what you can do and you can do it now.

By James A. O’Neal, Chair, Board of Directors, the Advocates for Human Rights

This post paraphrases remarks given by Mr. O’Neal at the Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 21, 2018.

Featured

“Go Home & Work It Out With Your Husband”: Why Sessions’ Ruling On Asylum Is So Devastating for Women Fleeing Domestic Violence

Woman covering face with handSome years ago, before the United States recognized that domestic violence was grounds for asylum, I represented a woman who was seeking asylum due to years of brutal violence inflicted upon her by her husband and the failure of her government to protect her.

“Ann” was a successful business person from East Africa who had experienced sexual, physical, psychological and emotional violence so extreme that she went to the police for help. Their response?

“Sorry, but this is a family matter – not a police matter. You have children. Go home and work it out with your husband. It will be better for all of you.”

So she went home. Her husband beat her until she passed out from the pain and blood loss as punishment for going to the police.

Because her business was so successful, she had the chance to expand the business to a neighboring country. She took the kids and moved, leaving no forwarding address. But he eventually found her there and, with support from the police, strongly “encouraged” her to move back to her country with the children. His family, as well as hers, also put pressure on her to stay in the marriage.

I met Ann because her husband was studying in the U.S. The beatings had intensified after the family moved here and she had called The Advocates for help. We had to meet to prepare the asylum application, but her husband, wary of her meeting with Americans, controlled where she went. We found surreptitious meeting places like the coffee shop near the daycare center so he would not suspect.

Perhaps others are not familiar with how much work goes into preparing a case for asylum in the United States. Asylum seekers must show, through both credible testimony and documentary evidence, that 1) they have a well-founded fear of persecution; 2) on the basis of political opinion, race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group; and 3) their government cannot or will not protect them. It is not an easy thing to do, to fit all the facts of your life and your fear into the narrow frame of U.S. asylum law (which is, in fact, U.S. implementation of our obligations under the International Refugee Convention).

As we were getting close to filing her application, Ann asked me to meet her in front the building where she was taking a class. I picked her up there once or twice, no problem, and we went to the library to work on her affidavit. But when I pulled up the next time, she was standing in front of the building holding her baby and looking nervous.  She made eye contact and shook her head.

“No,” she mouthed.  “Go.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man coming towards her. My overall impression was a fast-moving blur of anger and intimidation.  I looked away from Ann and hit the accelerator. I couldn’t speed off – I was a human rights lawyer working for a nonprofit and my old car had zero acceleration – so I could see from her expression that it would do more harm than good if I stopped and tried to help.

I still am a human rights lawyer working for a nonprofit and I still drive an old car with zero acceleration.  Every once in a while, when I look in the rearview mirror, I think of Ann and remember that day. The sight of him yelling at her, fist raised… this is the closest I have ever come to witnessing domestic violence and it is the closest that I ever hope to be.  I waited on pins and needles until she called me late that night after he fell asleep. He had beaten her again but she was still alive.

We filed her asylum application not long after. She testified truthfully and credibly at her interview about the persecution she suffered, how she tried to leave but he tracked her down in another country, and about her government’s unwillingness to protect her from harm. The Asylum Officer asked the question that many people unfamiliar with the power and control dynamics of domestic violence ask victims: “Why do you stay with him if he beats you?”

Her answer was simple.

“Because I have tried to leave and he always finds me and brings me back. Then the beatings get worse. I am afraid every day that he will kill me. Then what will happen to my children?”

The day Ann was granted asylum, she took the children and left to begin a new life in safety and dignity as an American.

Ann was not the first domestic violence victim granted asylum in the U.S. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, an increasing number of adjudicators granted asylum to individuals fleeing persecution by non-State actors that the government was unable or unwilling to control.  These were cases of individuals fleeing domestic violence, traditional harmful practices like FGM, and violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  In 2014, the federal Board of Immigration Appeals issued a precedential decision (Matter of A-R-C-G-) that people like Ann could be granted asylum based on persecution on account of a particular social group.

Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions has overturned that ruling and years of jurisprudence by announcing that victims of domestic violence and other persecution by private actors “generally” do not qualify for asylum. The attorney general announced his decision in Matter of A-B-, a case in which he invoked a rarely used power to personally intervene and certify to himself for reconsideration after the Board of Immigration Appeals reversed and remanded to the immigration judge with an order to grant asylum. The case concerns a woman from El Salvador who fled 15 years of sexual, physical, psychological and emotional violence that her government failed to protect her from.

What I would like my fellow Americans to know is this:

International law recognizes that asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.

The international refugee protection system was set up as a result of the horrors of World War II, when Jewish refugees attempted to flee and were returned to Nazi death camps.

When people present themselves at the U.S. border and ask for asylum, they are not breaking the law. They are acting lawfully. They are following the process established by federal statute. They are exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum from persecution.

The attorney general is by fiat attempting to return U.S. asylum law to a time when domestic violence was seen as a “family matter.” This is only the latest salvo in the administration’s all-out war against refugees and asylum seekers. It is connected to the “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy and should be seen in that context.

From a global perspective, Sessions’ move is in line with efforts in Russia and other countries around the world to undermine protections against domestic violence. I recently traveled to Moldova to train women’s human rights defenders who have seen the rising tide of “family values” throughout Russia, former Soviet republics, and Eastern Europe, as laws are passed decriminalizing domestic violence.

My client Ann was granted asylum on the basis of her social group of women from her country who have experienced extreme sexual, physical and emotional domestic violence, (which the UN Committee against Torture recognizes as “torture”), who are unable to escape their abuser and who the government is unable or unwilling to protect. It was only due to the permanent legal status she gained through the U.S. asylum system that she was able to take her children and leave her abusive husband, and start a new life for her family as Americans.

Mr. Session’s attempt to unilaterally narrow the definition of who is eligible for asylum from persecution ignores existing U.S. law and jurisprudence.  Further, it violates international law and US treaty obligations. In interpreting the Refugee Convention, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has issued advisory opinions stating that domestic violence victims are potentially part of a social group. It turns back the clock to a time women fleeing gender-based persecution were not given refugee protection.

In my experience, when people have the chance to actually meet and get to know refugees and asylum seekers – and even other migrants who are coming for reasons of family reunification or work – they don’t say things like Mr. Sessions wrote in his opinion in Matter of A.B., “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

People who know asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence say things like, “She’s a really good person, just doing the best that she can for her family. She is trapped and has to get out of this violent situation. What can I do to help her?”

Before taking it upon himself personally to change well-established asylum law and practice, I really wish that Mr. Sessions could have met my client Ann. Or maybe even A.B. or others impacted by his decision.

By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.