MONTREAL (WOMENSENEWS)–Oumou Toure gazed fondly at her 2-year-old daughter, Fanta, who frolicked in pink pants and a flowered shirt, her three braids flying around her head. Toure’s 10-month-old son, John, snored gently in a stroller.
Sitting quietly in her attorney’s office on a recent July day, the 24-year-old single mother was savoring the cliff-hanger legal victory in which she narrowly escaped deportation to her native Guinea.
On June 9 the Canadian Department of Citizenship and Immigration granted Toure permanent residence in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. It was her third try at gaining residency.
Although the decision does not set a legal precedent, it did show that the government "recognized the unacceptability" of sending Toure’s Canadian-born daughter back to Guinea in the custody of her mother, where the toddler would face the threat of genital mutilation.
"It’s our hope that other women will not have to go through the same kind of battle in the future," said her attorney, Richard Goldman.
Asylum Seekers Increase
A growing number of women are requesting asylum in Western countries to escape gender-based persecution.
As a signatory of the 1951 United Nations’ Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Canada stands out in allowing women who are at risk of female genital mutilation, or FGM, to stay, said Nancy Doray, a Montreal immigration attorney. She helped draft the nation’s refugee guidelines, which the Immigration and Refugee Board issued in 1993 and updated in 1996.
The government does not keep statistics on its reasons for acceptance or rejection. The guidelines include criteria for asylum based on fear of gender-based persecution, including domestic violence, rape with impunity and FGM, which ranges from the removal of the clitoris to sewing the genitalia closed and even the removal of the genitalia. The practice often causes later health problems, including higher maternal and infant mortality rates.
"I think Canada’s been a leader in women’s issues and refugee law even before the guidelines. They made a real effort to understand the issues that affected women and children," Doray said.
Nonetheless, Toure’s struggle with Canada’s immigration system, while ultimately victorious, highlights the obstacles women seeking asylum can face. Doray said it can be difficult to prove, for instance, that a woman will be at risk of FGM when it is outlawed in her home country because attorneys must show the laws are not enforced.
Goldman said his client was clearly traumatized by the time she met him, both from violence in Guinea and the stress of her legal battle.
"When I met her–and I’m used to dealing with people who are in distress–she couldn’t talk to me in the first hour," Goldman said. "So I can only imagine how badly it went before the Immigration and Refugee Board."
Sometimes, the immigration board denies a request on the grounds that the applicant does not appear to face future persecution. The implication, Goldman said, is that because the mutilation has already occurred, there can’t be any new danger. Toure’s daughter had not been born at the time of the initial asylum application, so the effect of her mother’s deportation couldn’t be included.
Daughter in Danger
In the end Toure won her right to stay by arguing that if she were sent back, her baby girl ran a high risk of undergoing the same forced genital mutilation that Toure at age 19 endured at the hands of her stepmother, an official circumciser in her community. Before Toure’s mother died she had protected her from it. But Toure could not stop her stepmother–who she also says was abusive and wanted to marry her off to a stranger–from mutilating her.
Female genital mutilation is practiced mainly in 28 countries in Africa as well as some countries in Asia and the Middle East, according to the World Health Organization, which estimates that 2 million girls annually are at risk. The U.S. State Department estimates that Guinea–where FGM is illegal–has a genital mutilation rate of almost 99 percent, with girls going through it anywhere between 4 and 12 years old.
"I cannot forget what happened," said Toure, whose surgery was performed without anesthesia. "It hurts me every time I think about it." She said she has physical problems because of it, including intense menstrual cramps. Also, she still has flashbacks.
Toure had one protector, her mother’s sister, who lives in Guinea. She helped her flee from Guinea in 2003 by driving her to Senegal under the pretense of taking a weekend trip and connecting her to a friend who was flying to Canada.
Upon arrival in Montreal, Toure was detained for a month by immigration officials for lack of proper identification documents, Goldman said. She immediately applied for asylum, emphasizing her stepmother’s abuses.
After losing her first case, Toure tried two more avenues, also to no avail: an application for permanent residency based on humanitarian grounds, and a request for a "pre-removal risk assessment," in which federal immigration officials conduct a last-minute review of an asylum request.
Both applications were refused in September 2006, which put Toure on track to be deported.
"We were fighting a big, uphill battle because she had been already refused on what is normally considered the last resort," Goldman said. They filed a new humanitarian application in December 2006, more thoroughly documenting the risk to the daughter.
In May, before that application had come up for review, immigration officials told Toure she would be deported the first week of July.
"When immigration asked me to go back, I cried a lot all the time for my daughter because I knew exactly what she would go through," Toure told Women’s eNews. "I had a hard time. I cried a lot and needed medication to sleep."
Toure’s team asked the national immigration agency to review the pending application before her scheduled deportation.
"The delay for having this case studied is usually about a year and a half. We filed it in December 2006; she was going to be removed by July 2007," Goldman said. He then asked the United Church, the parent of the Committee to Aid Refugees, to intervene directly with Diane Finley, the minister of citizenship and immigration.
Three weeks later they had not received an answer, Goldman said.
"So feeling we had absolutely no choice, we did a press conference on June 6. And within two hours of the press conference, we got a call from immigration saying, ‘Come in for an interview, we want to talk about your case.’ So that was on a Tuesday, the 6th. We went in for an interview on the 8th, and on the 9th we received the decision."
Safe in Canada, Toure has found what she calls a normal life. She lives with two roommates, also from Guinea, in a four-room apartment. Her new status entitles her to subsidized child care and to apply for a work permit. She says she wants to study nursing.
"I keep looking at my papers to make sure it’s real," she said. "I don’t ever want to go back, ever. I’d rather die than go back. I have no choice but to stay."
Theresa Braine covers Mexico and immigration issues. She has written for Newsday, People, the Associated Press and other publications during four years based in Mexico City.