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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Do they hear you when you cry – Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir

By the UNHCR representation in Cyprus blog

“On Thursday they said I'd be married. On Friday they told me they'd cut me. At midnight I escaped.” Read the true, moving story of Fauziya Kassindja, the seventeen year old girl from Togo who fled her country to escape Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and life in a forced polygamous marriage.

After having lost her progressive father, who sheltered her from the brutal tribal practices, Fauziya fled her village in Togo and made her way to the U.S. in 1994, where she sought asylum; only to have her hopes for freedom failed. On arrival to the US, she was put in detention where she remained for 18 months before being finally granted asylum on the basis of gender-based persecution. It took a lot of strength derived from her profound faith to endure the new, unexpected form of suffering: Kassindja waited for her initial hearing in prison for over eight months to be falsely denied asylum on grounds of lack credibility. She remained in prison for a total of 18 months, during which she broke down and asked to be sent back to Togo to escape the nightmare she was going through in prison. In prison she was strip-searched, put in chains, put in solitary confinement for over two weeks after being misdiagnosed with tuberculosis, and housed in a maximum-security prison with violent criminals with her health deteriorating dangerously.

With the help of a cousin living in the US and a dedicated law student named Layli Miller Bashir, Kassindja obtained legal representation and prevented her eventual deportation. Bashir along with high profile FGM activists initiated a huge legal battle to free Kassindja and grant her asylum.

On June 13, 1996, Kassindja and her legal team won a landmark case that created the precedence for all seeking asylum in the US on the grounds of gender-based persecution.

An estimated 70 million girls and women living today have been subjected to FGM mostly in Africa. FGM, which is practiced in 28 African countries, ranges from cutting off part or all of a girl’s external genitalia. FGM is commonly performed by a village woman who specializes in the practice using knives, razor blades, and pieces of broken glass under unsanitary conditions and with no anesthesia. It can result in death through severe bleeding leading to hemorrhagic shock, neurogenic shock as a result of pain and trauma, and severe, overwhelming infection and septicaemia. Many girls enter a state of shock induced by the severe pain, psychological trauma and exhaustion from screaming.

It is today an established principle that FGM is a fundamental violation of the rights of girls. It is discriminatory and violates the rights to equal opportunities, health, freedom from violence, injury, abuse, torture and cruel or inhuman and degrading treatment, protection from harmful traditional practices, and to make decisions concerning reproduction. It is also an established principle of refugee law that a girl or woman seeking asylum because she has been compelled to undergo, or is likely to be subjected to FGM, can qualify for refugee status under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

While FGM is illegal in many of the practicing countries, still more than one third of the women are circumcised and in some ethnic groups almost each and every young woman is subjected to the cut.

Apart from illustrating the injustice faced by millions of women in the world and the need to grant those women protection once they arrive in our doorstep, the book is an eye opener in many other respects. It’s also the story of dedicated, wonderful and talented individuals who made their own sacrifices in order to provide to Fauziya the most efficient legal support she could have ever received; had they not been so wholeheartedly involved she would have been sent back to her home country, probably facing an even worse nightmare than the one she escaped. The legal battles undertaken by the human rights activists were determinative in saving not only Fauziya’s life but setting the precedence for other women with similar horrible fates. This is a book that any asylum practitioner should read to see how careful one should be in adjudicating the credibility of an asylum claimant – how lack of multicultural awareness can easily lead to a conclusion that a claim seems “implausible” and hence to the rejection of an asylum claimant, such as Fauziya.

Above all, this is a book about the suffering of any refugee: the pain of separation from family and home, the loneliness of exile and often the unfair treatment refugees receive in reaching a third country seeking refuge. It’s also an eye opener for those who question the need for a fair and efficient asylum system and for those who perceive all asylum seekers as abusers of the system.

It’s a book that will not leave any reader untouched!