Fauziya Kassindja & the Struggle for Gender Asylum
"When I first arrived here if I had met somebody who had already established a Center like what Karen is doing right now, I wouldn’t have spent that much time in jail."
Karen Musalo, who now directs CGRS, was teaching the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University in Fall 1996 when a student came to her about an unusual asylum case involving a young girl fleeing female genital cutting in Togo.
The case involved Fauziya Kassindja. Fauziya was then a 17 year old young woman from Togo who fled her home country to escape female genital cutting (FGC) and life in a forced polygamous marriage. Fauziya arrived in the United States only to be placed in detention. By the time Karen became involved, Fauziya had already been denied asylum by an Immigration Judge, who found that she was not credible and that FGC did not present a basis for asylum.
Karen agreed to take the case under the Human Rights Law Clinic, and she led the successful litigation of the case before the Board of Immigration Appeals, leading to the first precedent decision establishing that women fleeing gender-based persecution could be eligible for asylum in the United States. Also involved in the
strategy and litigation was Professor Richard A. Boswell, who is currently
on the CGRS Advisory Board.
Fauziya & Prof. Richard Boswell, both members of the
CGRS Advisory Board
2006 is the 10th anniversary of Fauziya's groundbreaking asylum victory. Karen won the Kasinga case not simply through effective legal advocacy on behalf of her client but by turning to national women's rights and human rights organizations and mobilizing such widespread public support for Fauziya's claim for asylum that the agency simply could not return her to Togo. Fauziya Kassindja's quest for refugee protection became one of the most highly publicized political asylum cases since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act. The story ended up on the front pages of national newspapers and Fauziya was interviewed on Nightline, National Public Radio, and CNN International.
At the time Karen became involved in the case, Fauziya had been shut up for over a year in four immigration detention facilities and jails. She had been denied asylum by an immigration judge and survived a prison riot during which she was tear-gassed and beaten. Suffering from severe gastrointestinal disorders, her mental and physical health were so poor that she decided it would be better to return to Togo and suffer the fate which awaited her, rather than spend another day in U.S. jails.
Within days of her story appearing on the front page of The New York Times, the government agreed to release Fauziya, and she walked out of the York County Prison to find hordes of reporters and photographers. A little less than two months later, on June 13, 1996, a nearly unanimous Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that Fauziya was credible, and granted her request for political asylum.
Fauziya in detention
The decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals in her case, Matter of Kasinga, is widely recognized as a landmark which broke new ground in the developing jurisprudence of gender-based claims for asylum. The case continues to serve as support for the development of U.S. and international refugee law to recognize gender violence as a basis for asylum.
Fauziya, who is now the mother of three little boys, has remained close to
Karen and Richard. She is a member of the CGRS Advisory Board, and Karen
and Richard are the godparents for one of her three children.