“He was preaching to the young men to go into politics too,” she said by phone from Idaho Thursday afternoon, asking that her last name be withheld.
“The soldiers raped me to punish him,” she said.
At the time that these events occurred, armed factions were challenging the rule of Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila. During the unrest, women were regularly raped and otherwise brutalized as punishment for the men challenging Kabila’s rule.
“They wanted to kill me. They wanted to kill him,” Stephanie, now 31, said.
Her ordeal ended when she was granted asylum by the United States. But for another group of women wanting to emigrate here, victims of domestic violence, that route of escape was closed by the Trump administration this week.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that a woman’s fear of being subjected to domestic violence is not grounds for granting her asylum has drawn sharp rebukes from advocates for women and immigrants who say the decision is further proof the administration is out of its depth when it comes to basic human rights.
“If you are a woman in a country in which you have no power and are being subjected to extreme forms of violence on a regular basis … to say that this is not sufficient cause for asylum puts blinders up to a dire humanitarian situation,” said Jessica Therkelsen, attorney and director of the pro bono justice program OneJustice in San Francisco, California.
“It is completely unconscionable and not how [asylum laws] are supposed to be applied internationally,” she said.
Sessions, who as attorney general is also head arbiter of the Board of Immigration Appeals, rejected a plea for asylum from a Salvadoran woman who said she fled her country to escape a husband who raped and beat her.
In rendering his decision, which reversed an earlier grant of asylum to the woman, identified only as A-B, Sessions admitted the abuse she’d been subjected to was “vile,” but said the key question before him was whether “specifically, being a victim of private criminal activity constitutes a cognizable ‘particular social group’ for the purposes of an application for asylum or withholding of removal.”
Ultimately, he said, it does not. The asylum statute, he noted, is not a “general hardship statute.”
But Therkelsen, who has studied human rights and asylum access in the U.S., Ecuador, Tanzania, Thailand and Malaysia, and other immigrant advocates contend that the statutory language Sessions relied on ignores the reality of hardship women face in places like El Salvador.
With a population of 6.5 million, El Salvador has the world’s highest homicide rate for people under 19. According to a study by Small Arms Survey, an international group monitoring armed violence, the nation is also the world’s second most deadly country for women, just under war-ravaged Syria.
According to the Institute of Legal Medicine, 524 women were murdered in El Salvador in 2016 alone. And the nonprofit noted its tally does not account for women who never made it to a morgue. Those who are mutilated and dumped randomly in undeveloped areas routinely go uncounted.
El Salvador has also been the scene of a dramatic rise in gang- and drug-related violence, which often targets women.
On Wednesday, Agnes Callamard, a special reporter for the United Nations, said on CNN that women’s bodies there are used as “territory for revenge and control.”
Vulnerable to exploitation and facing threats to family if they resist violence, women often become pawns in a bloody game they have scant control over. Of note, the World Health Organization reported data last year indicating where criminal violence thrives, so too does domestic violence. This is exactly the situation Stephanie described.
Sessions’ ruling ignores all of this, Therkelsen said.
In 1948, the United Nations established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a doctrine which among promises to protect against “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,” also granted the right to “seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
In the U.S., asylum can be granted to those fearing persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or a person’s particular social group. Until recently, asylum seekers were asked to meet one more standard: establish their government is the cause of persecution or that oppression involves the conduct of individuals they cannot control.
For A-B, Sessions decided her husband’s violent conduct didn’t meet the threshold.
“An applicant seeking to establish persecution based on violent conduct of a private actor must show more than difficulty controlling private behavior,” he wrote. “The applicant must show the government condoned the private actions or at least demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect the victim.”
In El Salvador, the increase of violence against women has shown the government is helpless to stop it, Therkelsen said.
“The [U.S.] administration is looking at the plight of women worldwide and saying: ‘we don’t care that you’re facing extreme violence. We don’t care you’re facing extreme discrimination. We are going to apply the laws in such way that you cannot receive help. There’s no escape valve for you, that valve is shut,” she said. “[Sessions] is condemning women and children to lives of violence and destruction and reinforcing the power dynamic in El Salvador.”
The whole point of asylum, she said, is the very presence of that escape valve.
In Stephanie’s case, the road to asylum was a treacherous journey.
Having decided that she had no choice but to leave her sisters and parents behind in the Congo, she fled with her husband to Tanzania, where an Ebola outbreak delayed their departure to the U.S. for two years.
While the couple waited, Stephanie completed what she described as a seemingly endless amount of paperwork with the aid of officials from UNICEF. As she did so, Stephanie and her husband were displaced on an almost daily basis, and saw the vestiges of the life shared before hostilities consumed their homeland slowly slip away.
Finally, with UNICEF’s help, the United States granted her asylum and she was permitted to enter the country.
Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women told Courthouse News one of the most crucial elements missing from Sessions’ decision – a woman’s perspective.
“His theory may be based on a reasonable man’s point of view. What we’re missing and have always been missing is a reasonable woman’s point of view when it comes to this. Our perspective has been discounted and disrespected as a part of the solution to egregious violations of women’s rights and safety,” Pelt said.
Movements like #MeToo have exposed inequities between men in power and women with less of it, she said, but the years women spent internalizing abuse, has created a culture that overlooks women’s rights routinely.
This, Pelt said, is prevalent among appointees of the Trump administration.
“This ruling basically says it’s no big deal that women are being beaten up,” she said.
Though critics of Sessions’ ruling can work on restoring women’s rights where they are ignored through voting or appealing to lawmakers in protest, Therkelsen emphasized the role members of the legal community can play.
Attorneys should take on more pro bono work to help women and the hundreds of families separated at the border who are often trapped between the immigration bureaucracy and the oppression that awaits them back home.
“If you close your eyes and imagine the worst possible thing that could ever happen to you or your family and you think about what you would do to protect them – this is what is happening to people right now. As we close our borders to people who are desperate to protect themselves or their families, we’re condemning them to violence.”
If the emotional appeal doesn’t make it clear, she said, it doesn’t necessarily need to.
“The law is there [to protect these people]. It’s there,” she said. “Now it just comes down to applying humanity to it.”