Posted on March 14, 2005

Court Eases Asylum Rule for Genital Mutilation

Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times, Mar. 11

Expanding an earlier decision, an appellate panel says the procedure constitutes persecution and makes a woman automatically eligible.

A woman who has been subjected to genital mutilation is automatically eligible for asylum in the United States, the federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Thursday.

The decision is the second this week from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that has broadened asylum rights. Earlier, the court ruled in favor of asylum claims for men whose wives were subject to forced sterilizations.

The appeals court rejected the argument by government attorneys that female genital mutilation on its own cannot be a basis for a claim of past persecution because it is “widely accepted and widely practiced.”

“The fact that persecution is widespread” does not make “a particular asylum claim less compelling,” the court said in a 3-0 ruling, adding that a woman who has been forced to undergo the procedure has suffered a “continuing harm.”

The 9th Circuit acted in a case filed by Khadija Mohamed, a young woman from Somalia. According to a State Department report, “virtually all” women in that country are subjected to one of several forms of genital mutilation. Court records indicated that Mohamed’s clitoris had been surgically removed.

Forms of genital mutilation are common as coming-of-age rituals in more than two dozen nations in Africa and some in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

Since 1996, the U.S. government has recognized female genital mutilation as a form of “persecution” that could entitle a woman to political asylum in at least some cases. For example, women have been able to win asylum by proving that refusing to have the procedure would open them to retaliation.

The current ruling, however, breaks ground in saying genital mutilation is enough to allow an asylum claim to go forward because the procedure, itself, is a form of continuing persecution.