March is Women’s History Month—a time not only to celebrate women’s contributions to history and society, but also to reflect on the injustices and persecution that too many women continue to face across the globe. Among the most vulnerable members of our global society are gay* and transgender women who are victimized and mistreated in their home countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. A lack of financial means to escape persecution and seek asylum in the United States often exacerbates their plight. Even if these women arrive on U.S. shores, they face unique challenges filing for asylum. As Congress and the Obama administration move forward on comprehensive immigration reform, they must take into account the barriers that prevent gay and transgender women from fleeing persecution and pursuing more secure and safe lives as U.S. citizens.
Many gay and transgender individuals face persecution in their home countries
In many countries around the world, gay and transgender people are targets of violence and discrimination. In nearly 80 countries, sexual activity between men is illegal, and about half of these nations also outlaw sexual activity between women. Some of these countries use the death penalty to punish gay men and women, while others resort to imprisonment, forced labor, and even corrective rape.
In addition to the persecution of gay and transgender individuals through laws, repressive societies may also threaten the safety of gay and transgender people when their sexual orientation or gender identity does not conform—or is viewed as not conforming—to prevailing cultural, political, or social norms. As a result, many gay and transgender individuals flee their home countries in search of safer and more tolerant countries.
Women have greater difficulty seeking asylum because of cultural and economic inequality in their home countries
Arriving on U.S. shores often presents the greatest obstacle for women seeking asylum. Unlike an immigrant applying for refugee status, an asylum applicant must be within the borders of the United States—a requirement that poses a significant challenge for women who suffer from cultural and economic inequality within their home countries.
Women often lack the resources to pay for the cost of travelling to the United States and its promise of asylum. Despite the fact that women are half of the world’s population, they comprise 70 percent of the world’s poor, own just 1 percent of property, and earn only 10 percent of global income. For impoverished women in faraway lands looking to the United States for sanctuary, a journey overseas is simply not an option.
Even women with the financial wherewithal to travel to the United States, their asylum may still encounter cultural barriers impeding their escape. Women in some Middle Eastern countries must be accompanied by a male family member when they journey outside the home. Women violating this law may be particularly vulnerable to violence and other forms of severe punishment. For these women, the chances of fleeing their home countries unescorted and undetected are bleak at best, and often dangerous.
The situation becomes even more complicated when a family discovers a female family member is gay or transgender. In that situation a family will often assign more domestic responsibilities to her and limit her movement outside of the household. This is a way of isolating women and depriving them of the opportunity to develop a support network, which would be a valuable resource if they ever choose to flee their home country.
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