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International Day of the Girl, Oct. 11, 2012: Finding Sanctuary

October 11, 2012

Child marriage

Today is International Day of the Girl and as a person who was responsible for deciding refugee claims in Canada and specialized in gender claims, I would like to be permitted a word on the reasons it may be necessary to have an International Day of the Girl.

In my hearing room, I listened to tales of mistreatment of girls and women from around the world. From that observational post, some things make themselves depressingly clear.

One is that most persecution against women and girls, and for that matter most persecution in the world of any kind, is carried out overwhelmingly by men. I’ve long reflected on why that might be so and I cannot say that I’ve seen the core of the issue.

To take just one area, the predatory nature of much sexuality in the world together with the assignment of the role to women of being the object of gaze, the prize of sexual attention and often conquest, reaches the level of the criminal in many areas of the world. It was shocking to me to realize, as the result of my training in refugee law, the extent of the mistreatment of women and girls in the world, and of our ignorance of it.

If I were to list the crimes against women practiced in the world, it would be very long. Girl foetuses may be aborted and girl children abandoned in countries that practice boy preference. Girls are married off at young ages in many countries, without a choice in the matter. If a women tries to choose her own mate in some countries, she may be murdered in an honor killing and the perpetrators not prosecuted. If her family won’t yield to blackmail for more dowry money, she could be burned alive in a “kitchen fire” in what is termed a dowry death.

Some areas make rape a legal measure for misconduct and others practice rape routinely in their jails and prisons. A woman who turns down a suitor in some countries can have acid thrown in her face.

In some countries, women are forced to bear children; in others, they’re forcibly sterilized if they produce too many. The extent of sexual slavery in the world would cause anyone who knew about it to weep. And the large western companies that aid, abet and profit from sexual slavery is also shocking.

I could go on about female genital mutilation, the denial of education to girls, the closure of the job market, lack of political representation, marriage as enforced slavery and human trafficking, just to name a few, but there is no end to the cruelty against women that is practiced in the world. And for some reason, again unknown to me, we in the West know very little about it.

Two cases I heard are etched in my mind and always will be and maybe I could end this attempt to bring attention to the matter with them. The first was that of a very attractive Russian woman – stereotypically attractive – whom the Chechen mafia in an eastern Russian city had taken a fancy to. I think they did so because she represented “Russia” to them and this was their way to get back at Russia. They would drive up to her house and take her from her parents, drug her and rape her for a week to ten days and then take her home again. Over and over again it happened.

This woman had been denied refugee status in the United States because at the time persecution against women was seen as a crime and not covered by the Refugee Convention. But Canada had enacted Gender Guidelines that made offenses against women simply as women “persecution” and not a simple crime.

It’s very hard to represent the scene in that hearing room. This individual was telling so tragic a story that it traumatized those who heard it. Her body was rebelling against her, saying the words so that her voice went up and down and her body convulsed. But though it rendered her words macabre, one could see that she was determined to get them out. She continued through tears and convulsions until she had described enough sordidness to establish her claim after which I shut the hearing down. It was one of the hardest cases I had to hear, but there were many that ran a close second, some of which were so hideous I cannot bring myself to speak of them.

The second case was a woman doctor from Bangladesh who had suffered from Bell’s palsy as a child. Bell’s palsy is easily cured with medical attention, but her family would not pay for medical attention for a girl child. Disfigured, she concluded that she would never marry and so risked severe punishment from her family when she insisted that she go to school.

She studied to become a doctor and when she went to practice, the family shipped her off to Saudi Arabia, where she led a practically cloistered life in a country of universal male privilege. All her money was shipped home; the family said they were saving it for her. But when she returned, the family had spent every cent.

I knew that this claimant was a refugee fifteen minutes into the hearing. But counsel and I looked at each other and by silent but mutual consent allowed her to tell her story for the next three hours because we knew it was something she needed to do – at least once in her life. Counsel did not say that she (counsel) needed to go and since it was clear I had made my decision, could we wrap things up please. It was clear to everyone in the room that she needed to speak.

You learn to be a carpenter in a refugee hearing room. Sometimes you have to cobble a decision to arrive at something that will satisfy those who scrutinize one’s work. There are reasons why a decision, though well-grounded in many respects, can go off the rails.

In Canadian law, we even have certain provisions that allow us to bridge an unbridgeable gap when we encounter it. On that decision, there were reasons that I haven’t gone into that could have seen the decision overturned. I’ve never cobbled a decision with more outlandish features as I did on that day and with more nails. Refugee decision-makers call such a decision “bullet-proof.” Mine was kevlar. And the decision stood.

There are seven words I cannot say without bursting into tears. They are the last words in a positive refugee decision: “… and I extend to you Canada’s protection.” The refugee laws of the world in many cases are the only defense that women have to find sanctuary from the crimes against women that exist in our society.

But all this is destined to change, along with all the other misery we’ve caused in our world in so many areas of life. Not too far in the future, girls and women will find themselves in a world where equality reigns; where injustice, oppression and exploitation cannot enter. We call it by many names, but one name I know it by is “sanctuary.” I never knew how the situation for women and girls would right itself in our world back then, but I do now. This is just one more area of extreme cruelty and shameful mistreatment that will not last in our world and that will yield to the spread of love and compassion which, at the present time, we see all around us.

For more information, see Ending the Global Persecution of Women (2007) at

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