On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a radical decision that will undoubtedly result in death or significant harm to some of the world’s most vulnerable women: victims of domestic violence who live in countries that do not, or cannot, protect them from their abusive partners. Over the past two decades, the United States has provided a safe haven to many of these women through its asylum laws. In a heartless move that flouts established U.S. law and international human rights standards, Sessions found that a domestic violence victim from El Salvador—perhaps the most dangerous country on earth in which to be a woman—would not qualify for asylum, even though her own country had utterly failed to protect her.
In previous years, whether the United States was under a Republican or Democratic president, such a decision would have been unthinkable. The State Department’s human rights reports routinely criticize other countries for their lack of protections for domestic violence survivors, and U.S. asylum laws have evolved over the years to account for the multiple forms of persecution that victims may suffer—including persecution at the hands of a private actor—when their governments fail to provide protection.
Asylum protections for victims of gender-based violence have been well established for decades—not only in the United States but also under the international human rights system. The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention established the right to claim asylum on the basis of gender-based persecution and crimes. Historically, nations treated domestic violence as a private matter to be resolved between partners and families. But in modern times, violence against women has come to be understood as a human rights violation—a form of gender-based discrimination that subordinates and oppresses women. When nations fail to prevent violence at the hands of private individuals, protect women and girls from it, and ensure access to remedies for survivors, the international community has an obligation to step in. Indeed, international and domestic
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