News in Gender-based Claims for Asylum

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling by the Immigration Court and Board of Immigration Appeals and sent a case back to consider whether Guatemalan women make up a cognizable “social group” and should therefore be eligible for asylum. More than 3,800 women have been killed in that country since 2000, and close to 800 last year. Fewer than 2 percent of the cases are solved in the male-dominated culture, according to the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. To obtain asylum, applicants must show that they are unwilling or unable to return to their native country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, race, or nationality.

Previously, the Ninth Circuit has determined that gypsies, homosexuals, and Somali women facing FGM made up social groups for purposes of asylum. “While we have not held expressly that females, without other defining characteristics, constitute a particular social group, we have concluded that females, or young girls of a particular clan, met our definition of a particular social group,” Judge Richard Paez wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. Such a determination opens the doors for applicants to make the case that women, particularly victims of gender abuse and violent crime, can be capable of being a social group. Although some (including myself) may argue that the ruling is overly broad, the three-judge panel found that the decision was “inconsistent with its own precedent and this court’s case law.”

In the end, however, having worked firsthand with women who have suffered through gender abuse such as FGM; domestic violence including torture and imprisonment; assassination attempts for being a progressive, educated woman or for simply talking to a boy at school; or being rendered incapable of making decisions for herself by virtue of her gender, I consider this a small but important victory. For some women, returning to their country is truly a death sentence. Click here to read the decision.

For more information on my practice and to learn about how I’ve helped other asylum applicants, please visit my website at


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