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Granting Political Asylum for Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation

By Maegan Taback


In 1994, a 17-year-old girl by the name of Fauziya Kassindja sought political asylum in the United States. Although her claims were based on human rights violations, this did not stop U.S. officials from stripping her naked and imprisoning her in the immigration system.

Kassindja was escaping a practice known as female genital mutilation, a ritual that is much too common in some parts of the world. Once womanhood rolled around the corner, Kassindja sought to escape the fate that many of her peers had been subjected to and fled her remote village in Togo in search of political asylum in the U.S..

Female genital mutilation (FGM) “involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons,” and in many societies, it is seen as a rite of passage. Many see it as a display of femininity and modesty and believe that it demonstrates cleanliness. Although it holds cultural value to some, many are subjected to it against their will. The practice tends to happen before the age of 15 and is globally considered a human rights violation. There are no health benefits to FGM—rather, this practice often leads to long-term physical and psychological consequences, and the procedure is typically performed in unsanitary conditions. Moreover, it is generally performed without anesthesia, and mothers frequently have to restrain their children. Many girls are too young and lack the agency to make this decision for themselves, as it is a deeply-entrenched societal norm. This is what forced Kassindja to flee.

Where is FGM practiced?

Rooted in the traditional practices of many communities, FGM is practiced across the world. Trends show that FGM is typically practiced in many African countries as well as some in the Middle East. Countries that practice FGM include Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Iraq, Guinea, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Cote d’Ivoire. It is also practiced among migrant populations around the world. It is especially common in Ethiopia among Somali ethnic groups. Within these regions, women living in rural areas are more likely to face the practice, as it is a frequent norm in rural villages that have less government supervision. In total, the World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to FGM.

What has been done about it?

The UN has called FGM a violation of human rights. Many countries, like the United States and all EU member states, have openly declared FGM to be considered cruel treatment and a form of gender-based violence, and they have outlawed the practice.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund have jointly led the largest global program to end FGM. With their efforts, a girl is about one third less likely to face FGM than she would have 30 years ago. UNICEF supports countries developing policies that are focused on outlawing the practice and ensures their implementation and enforcement. They strive to aid FGM survivors in accessing care and dismantle the social norms that allow the practice to take place.

Together, they have created the Joint Programme on Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation, in an effort to eliminate FGM by 2030. This program was launched in 2008 and works to change the social norms of many practicing countries. It works with governments to implement national response systems and also endorses global alliances.

With this program, 2021 delivered a few key developments. According to UNICEF:

  • over 3.4 million girls and women claimed to have fled FGM;

  • over half a million girls received health care services, social welfare, and access to justice to respond to FGM; and,

  • over 200,000 adolescent girls were educated on how to advocate for their rights and break this societal norm.

Notably, the governments of Austria, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union have funded this program and allowed for its success.

Despite these efforts, FGM still remains prevalent. With FGM going unchecked in many of the countries where it is practiced, women have no choice but to flee; yet, it is often difficult for girls to do so at such a young age, especially without the support of their families and with great societal pressure. Worse yet, many immigration systems pose systematic barriers, as Kassindja experienced, making asylum-seeking more challenging.

According to UNICEF, “of the 31 FGM-affected countries for which data are available, 22 are among the least developed in the world.” Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has closed schools and disrupted programs that are intended to protect girls from FGM. While there were initial strides in ending the practice before the pandemic, many of these efforts have been severely hampered; and, with population growth increasing in many of the FGM-practicing countries, the number of girls subjected to this practice will soon increase significantly, which is why more reforms are needed.

A Solution: Reforming the Asylum Process

Luckily, Kassindja became the first person to receive political asylum for FGM in the United States. However, the difficulties she faced call into question typical refugee practices and the role countries are supposed to play in combating human rights violations. Since it is unlikely to be eliminated in countries where it is practiced, the best way to combat FGM is by granting asylum, a process which must be reformed.

Although Kassindja’s case set a precedent for other asylum seekers in the U.S., “adjudicators have continued to resist gender-based asylum claims.” Additionally, not all refugee-seeking countries consider FGM as a basis of political asylum. The asylum process needs to be reformed to handle these matters without question, and claims of gender-based violence must be taken seriously. Such asylum claims need to be increasingly codified in the country's refugee laws. It is simply not fair to let a country’s immigration system run its course.

So, how do states go about reforming asylum laws? Although many countries could simply reform their own asylum practices through legislation, this is unlikely to happen without international pressure. Governments often have competing internal pressures and motivations that have stalled and could continue impeding progress, making widespread country-level reform unlikely. Given the gravity of the issue as a human rights violation, states should take responsibility to combat violations like FGM, even if they’re not committing them.

With the inability to reform asylum thus far, this effort may require international enforcement. While individual countries have sovereignty to determine their own grounds for granting asylum, many countries are also bound by international organizations that enforce particular norms and rules. As such, some organizations, like the World Health Organization, might consider changing their terms of membership to encourage necessary asylum reforms. The practice of “shaming” by international organizations, where states in need of reform are put in the spotlight, might also be effective in encouraging members to adopt asylum laws that protect the rights of survivors. Although there are some international organizations that contribute to the fight against gender-based violence, they can do little in terms of changing asylum practices. As important as they are, these organizations are weak enforcement mechanisms given their relative power. Thus, enforcement should come from strong actors, such as the United Nations or European Union. While they have succeeded in outlawing FGM in most member states, their efforts need to go a step further to address the issue of political asylum.

This might increase efforts closer to where the problem lies, as well, by requiring all regions to take part. A 2013 study found that survivors mainly applied for asylum in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, France, the U.K., and Belgium. On this journey, these asylum seekers risk human trafficking, poverty, or detainment. They should not have to travel this far to get the protections they deserve. They need support closer to home, which may require support to be focused in other geographic areas outside of Europe and closer to the regions where FGM runs rampant. Many African democracies, like South Africa, are bound under the same institutions as Western democracies and can therefore be influenced by these enforcement mechanisms. The fight against FGM will require the efforts of all regions, and such methods are how to hold the world responsible.

With international enforcement mechanisms, change can take place in multiple states across the world. Even then, many states will not reform; and, although many “free” countries determine FGM to be illegal, their asylum laws are convoluted and unfair. Girls should not have to choose between facing human rights violations or taking a chance on immigration systems. Girls should not have to face the barriers that Fauziya Kassindja overcame. We need to make the process of asylum easier for survivors and do more to dismantle the practice entirely.



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