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Afflicted Women Find Hope In Canada's Refugee Rules

One year after adopting gender guidelines for assessing asylum claims, Canada has become a model for others

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JULIA'S husband beat her regularly, but police in Ecuador would do nothing. Once, after she complained, the officers laughed.

After nearly 10 years of being beaten and raped by her husband, Julia (not her real name) divorced him. When he threatened her life in 1991, she fled to Canada.

In one of the first rulings of its kind, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) granted Julia refugee status because of state discrimination against her gender. In making its decision, the Board said ``the unwillingness of the state to protect `Ecuadoran women subject to wife abuse' may amount to persecution.''

With Julia's case, decided one year ago today, Canada became the first nation to adopt gender guidelines to assess refugee claims. Now many cases previously labeled ``domestic disputes,'' are seen in Canada as systematic state persecution when authorities routinely ignore a woman's pleas.

Most Western countries grant asylum to people persecuted by governments because of their politics, religion, or race. But for women from countries and cultures where spouse-beatings and other abuses against women are widely tolerated, proving persecution has been difficult because their cases did not meet traditional definitions of ``persecution.''

Canadian refugee officials now weigh whether a woman applying for asylum sought official help to stop domestic abuse, but was ignored, and if the woman's country has historically ignored violence against women. If the answer is yes in both cases, Canada's IRB is likely to let her stay.

Serving a growing number

Canada's guidelines are not law, but they have opened a window of escape for a small but growing number of women. Opponents of the guidelines predicted a flood of applications, but that has not happened.

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