The Plank

When Domestic Abuse Isn't Just Domestic


Alex Kotlowitz has a great article in today's New York Times Magazine about the plight of foreign women who have been abused by their husbands and are seeking asylum in the United States. Normally, domestic disputes don't register as meeting the U.N. Refugee Convention-which the United States adopted-threshold for refuge. And rightly so; a domestic crime should be handled by a country's local authorities. However, when said local authorities are institutionally disposed to violence against women and see husbands as within their rights to beat their wives, then women become a "social group" who are persecuted under the aegis of their native governments. Suddenly, a local crime becomes a national systemic persecution. One Indian woman profiled in the article complained about her husband's abusive nature to the police. They let the husband go after a night in jail. The wife was then punished with a beating so cruel, it landed her in the hospital for two days. Without the government itself providing her and her children sanctuary, she is understandably left to flee her country.

Except the United States doesn't quite see it that way at all. Under the guise of discussing the ramifications of enshrining domestic abuse in our current regulations, the Department of Homeland Security is slow to recognize abused women as a "social group" under the U.N. Refugee Convention. Kotlowitz's story points out that many have argued that an abusive husband may be a "bully" or a "drunk" and not someone who wants to persecute all women--just, you know, his wife. But if the government of that abuser's country is also persecuting the battered woman, by not getting her to safety or even taking her seriously to begin with, then regardless of the intent of the initial batterer, the woman should be considered of a persecuted social class.

But here's the rub: "Some believe that if we freely use sex to define a social group, it would open the floodgates to victims of domestic violence, who in many countries ... can be found in large numbers." In other words, despite the inherent morality and basic good of accepting such refugees into the United States, the DHS fears there is a demographic issue. It's tough being a safe haven to people from across the globe; it means we Americans have to provide services and assistance to untold thousands. But that's who we are; it is why America is great. And once we recognize the failure of other states to protect their women, it is a moral imperative that we act and not dissemble whimpering because it might be hard.

--Sacha Zimmerman

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