University of Minnesota

Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Guidelines on International Protection: Gender-Related Persecution within the Context of Article 1a(2) of the 1951 Convention and Its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, U.N. Doc. HCR/GIP/02/01 (2002).



7 May 2002

Original: ENGLISH

Gender-Related Persecution within the context of Article 1A(2)
of the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol
relating to the Status of Refugees

UNHCR issues these Guidelines pursuant to its mandate, as contained in the Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in conjunction with Article 35 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and Article II of its 1967 Protocol. These Guidelines complement the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (Reedited, Geneva, January 1992). They further replace UNHCR’s Position Paper on Gender-Related Persecution (Geneva, January 2000) and result from the Second Track of the Global Consultations on International Protection process which examined this subject at its expert meeting in San Remo in September 2001.

These Guidelines are intended to provide legal interpretative guidance for governments, legal practitioners, decision-makers and the judiciary, as well as UNHCR staff carrying out refugee status determination in the field.

Gender-Related Persecution within the context of Article 1A(2) of the
1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees


1. “Gender-related persecution” is a term that has no legal meaning per se. Rather, it is used to encompass the range of different claims in which gender is a relevant consideration in the determination of refugee status. These Guidelines specifically focus on the interpretation of the refugee definition contained in Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (hereinafter “1951 Convention”) from a gender perspective, as well as propose some procedural practices in order to ensure that proper consideration is given to women claimants in refugee status determination procedures and that the range of gender-related claims are recognised as such.

2. It is an established principle that the refugee definition as a whole should be interpreted with an awareness of possible gender dimensions in order to determine accurately claims to refugee status. This approach has been endorsed by the General Assembly, as well as the Executive Committee of UNHCR’s Programme.

3. In order to understand the nature of gender-related persecution, it is essential to define and distinguish between the terms “gender” and “sex”. Gender refers to the relationship between women and men based on socially or culturally constructed and defined identities, status, roles and responsibilities that are assigned to one sex or another, while sex is a biological determination. Gender is not static or innate but acquires socially and culturally constructed meaning over time. Gender-related claims may be brought by either women or men, although due to particular types of persecution, they are more commonly brought by women. In some cases, the claimant’s sex may bear on the claim in significant ways to which the decision-maker will need to be attentive. In other cases, however, the refugee claim of a female asylum-seeker will have nothing to do with her sex. Gender-related claims have typically encompassed, although are by no means limited to, acts of sexual violence, family/domestic violence, coerced family planning, female genital mutilation, punishment for transgression of social mores, and discrimination against homosexuals.

4. Adopting a gender-sensitive interpretation of the 1951 Convention does not mean that all women are automatically entitled to refugee status. The refugee claimant must establish that he or she has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.



5. Historically, the refugee definition has been interpreted through a framework of male experiences, which has meant that many claims of women and of homosexuals, have gone unrecognised. In the past decade, however, the analysis and understanding of sex and gender in the refugee context have advanced substantially in case law, in State practice generally and in academic writing. These developments have run parallel to, and have been assisted by, developments in international human rights law and standards, as well as in related areas of international law, including through jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In this regard, for instance, it should be noted that harmful practices in breach of international human rights law and standards cannot be justified on the basis of historical, traditional, religious or cultural grounds.

6. Even though gender is not specifically referenced in the refugee definition, it is widely accepted that it can influence, or dictate, the type of persecution or harm suffered and the reasons for this treatment. The refugee definition, properly interpreted, therefore covers gender-related claims. As such, there is no need to add an additional ground to the 1951 Convention definition.

7. In attempting to apply the criteria of the refugee definition in the course of refugee status determination procedures, it is important to approach the assessment holistically, and have regard to all the relevant circumstances of the case. It is essential to have both a full picture of the asylum-seeker’s personality, background and personal experiences, as well as an analysis and up-to-date knowledge of historically, geographically and culturally specific circumstances in the country of origin. Making generalisations about women or men is not helpful and in doing so, critical differences, which may be relevant to a particular case, can be overlooked.

8. The elements of the definition discussed below are those that require a gender-sensitive interpretation. Other criteria (e.g. being outside the country of origin) remain, of course, also directly relevant to the holistic assessment of any claim. Throughout this document, the use of the term “women” includes the girl-child.


9. What amounts to a well-founded fear of persecution will depend on the particular circumstances of each individual case. While female and male applicants may be subjected to the same forms of harm, they may also face forms of persecution specific to their sex. International human rights law and international criminal law clearly identify certain acts as violations of these laws, such as sexual violence, and support their characterisation as serious abuses, amounting to persecution. In this sense, international law can assist decision-makers to determine the persecutory nature of a particular act. There is no doubt that rape and other forms of gender-related violence, such as dowry-related violence, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and trafficking, are acts which inflict severe pain and suffering – both mental and physical – and which have been used as forms of persecution, whether perpetrated by State or private actors.

10. Assessing a law to be persecutory in and of itself has proven to be material to determining some gender-related claims. This is especially so given the fact that relevant laws may emanate from traditional or cultural norms and practices not necessarily in conformity with international human rights standards. However, as in all cases, a claimant must still establish that he or she has a well-founded fear of being persecuted as a result of that law. This would not be the case, for instance, where a persecutory law continues to exist but is no longer enforced.

11. Even though a particular State may have prohibited a persecutory practice (e.g. female genital mutilation), the State may nevertheless continue to condone or tolerate the practice, or may not be able to stop the practice effectively. In such cases, the practice would still amount to persecution. The fact that a law has been enacted to prohibit or denounce certain persecutory practices will therefore not in itself be sufficient to determine that the individual’s claim to refugee status is not valid.

12. Where the penalty or punishment for non-compliance with, or breach of, a policy or law is disproportionately severe and has a gender dimension, it would amount to persecution. Even if the law is one of general applicability, circumstances of punishment or treatment cannot be so severe as to be disproportionate to the objective of the law. Severe punishment for women who, by breaching a law, transgress social mores in a society could, therefore, amount to persecution.

13. Even where laws or policies have justifiable objectives, methods of implementation that lead to consequences of a substantially prejudicial nature for the persons concerned, would amount to persecution. For example, it is widely accepted that family planning constitutes an appropriate response to population pressures. However, implementation of such policies, through the use of forced abortions and sterilisations, would breach fundamental human rights law. Such practices, despite the fact that they may be implemented in the context of a legitimate law, are recognised as serious abuses and considered persecution.

Discrimination amounting to persecution

14. While it is generally agreed that ‘mere’ discrimination may not, in the normal course, amount to persecution in and of itself, a pattern of discrimination or less favourable treatment could, on cumulative grounds, amount to persecution and warrant international protection. It would, for instance, amount to persecution if measures of discrimination lead to consequences of a substantially prejudicial nature for the person concerned, e.g. serious restrictions on the right to earn one’s livelihood, the right to practice one’s religion, or access to available educational facilities.

15. Significant to gender-related claims is also an analysis of forms of discrimination by the State in failing to extend protection to individuals against certain types of harm. If the State, as a matter of policy or practice, does not accord certain rights or protection from serious abuse, then the discrimination in extending protection, which results in serious harm inflicted with impunity, could amount to persecution. Particular cases of domestic violence, or of abuse for reasons of one’s differing sexual orientation, could, for example, be analysed in this context.

Persecution on account of one’s sexual orientation

16. Refugee claims based on differing sexual orientation contain a gender element. A claimant’s sexuality or sexual practices may be relevant to a refugee claim where he or she has been subject to persecutory (including discriminatory) action on account of his or her sexuality or sexual practices. In many such cases, the claimant has refused to adhere to socially or culturally defined roles or expectations of behaviour attributed to his or her sex. The most common claims involve homosexuals, transsexuals or transvestites, who have faced extreme public hostility, violence, abuse, or severe or cumulative discrimination.

17. Where homosexuality is illegal in a particular society, the imposition of severe criminal penalties for homosexual conduct could amount to persecution, just as it would for refusing to wear the veil by women in some societies. Even where homosexual practices are not criminalised, a claimant could still establish a valid claim where the State condones or tolerates discriminatory practices or harm perpetrated against him or her, or where the State is unable to protect effectively the claimant against such harm.

Trafficking for the purposes of forced prostitution or sexual exploitation as a form of persecution

18. Some trafficked women or minors may have valid claims to refugee status under the 1951 Convention. The forcible or deceptive recruitment of women or minors for the purposes of forced prostitution or sexual exploitation is a form of gender-related violence or abuse that can even lead to death. It can be considered a form of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It can also impose serious restrictions on a woman’s freedom of movement, caused by abduction, incarceration, and/or confiscation of passports or other identify documents. In addition, trafficked women and minors may face serious repercussions after their escape and/or upon return, such as reprisals or retaliation from trafficking rings or individuals, real possibilities of being re-trafficked, severe community or family ostracism, or severe discrimination. In individual cases, being trafficked for the purposes of forced prostitution or sexual exploitation could therefore be the basis for a refugee claim where the State has been unable or unwilling to provide protection against such harm or threats of harm.

Agents of Persecution

19. There is scope within the refugee definition to recognise both State and non-State actors of persecution. While persecution is most often perpetrated by the authorities of a country, serious discriminatory or other offensive acts committed by the local populace, or by individuals, can also be considered persecution if such acts are knowingly tolerated by the authorities, or if the authorities refuse, or are unable, to offer effective protection.

C. THE CAUSAL LINK (“for reasons of”)

20. The well-founded fear of being persecuted must be related to one or more of the Convention grounds. That is, it must be “for reasons of” race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. The Convention ground must be a relevant contributing factor, though it need not be shown to be the sole, or dominant, cause. In many jurisdictions the causal link (“for reasons of”) must be explicitly established (e.g. some Common Law States) while in other States causation is not treated as a separate question for analysis, but is subsumed within the holistic analysis of the refugee definition. In many gender-related claims, the difficult issue for a decision-maker may not be deciding upon the applicable ground, so much as the causal link: that the well-founded fear of being persecuted was for reasons of that ground. Attribution of the Convention ground to the claimant by the State or non-State actor of persecution is sufficient to establish the required causal connection.

21. In cases where there is a risk of being persecuted at the hands of a non-State actor (e.g. husband, partner or other non-State actor) for reasons which are related to one of the Convention grounds, the causal link is established, whether or not the absence of State protection is Convention related. Alternatively, where the risk of being persecuted at the hands of a non-State actor is unrelated to a Convention ground, but the inability or unwillingness of the State to offer protection is for reasons of a Convention ground, the causal link is also established.


22. Ensuring that a gender-sensitive interpretation is given to each of the Convention grounds is important in determining whether a particular claimant has fulfilled the criteria of the refugee definition. In many cases, claimants may face persecution because of a Convention ground which is attributed or imputed to them. In many societies a woman’s political views, race, nationality, religion or social affiliations, for example, are often seen as aligned with relatives or associates or with those of her community.

23. It is also important to be aware that in many gender-related claims, the persecution feared could be for one, or more, of the Convention grounds. For example, a claim for refugee status based on transgression of social or religious norms may be analysed in terms of religion, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. The claimant is not required to identify accurately the reason why he or she has a well-founded fear of being persecuted.


24. Race for the purposes of the refugee definition has been defined to include all kinds of ethnic groups that are referred to as “races” in common usage. Persecution for reasons of race may be expressed in different ways against men and women. For example, the persecutor may choose to destroy the ethnic identity and/or prosperity of a racial group by killing, maiming or incarcerating the men, while the women may be viewed as propagating the ethnic or racial identity and persecuted in a different way, such as through sexual violence or control of reproduction.


25. In certain States, the religion assigns particular roles or behavioural codes to women and men respectively. Where a woman does not fulfil her assigned role or refuses to abide by the codes, and is punished as a consequence, she may have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of religion. Failure to abide by such codes may be perceived as evidence that a woman holds unacceptable religious opinions regardless of what she actually believes. A woman may face harm for her particular religious beliefs or practices, or those attributed to her, including her refusal to hold particular beliefs, to practise a prescribed religion or to conform her behaviour in accordance with the teachings of a prescribed religion.

26. There is some overlap between the grounds of religion and political opinion in gender-related claims, especially in the realm of imputed political opinion. While religious tenets require certain kinds of behaviour from a woman, contrary behaviour may be perceived as evidence of an unacceptable political opinion. For example, in certain societies, the role ascribed to women may be attributable to the requirements of the State or official religion. The authorities or other actors of persecution may perceive the failure of a woman to conform to this role as the failure to practice or to hold certain religious beliefs. At the same time, the failure to conform could be interpreted as holding an unacceptable political opinion that threatens the basic structure from which certain political power flows. This is particularly true in societies where there is little separation between religious and State institutions, laws and doctrines.


27. Nationality is not to be understood only as “citizenship”. It also refers to membership of an ethnic or linguistic group and may occasionally overlap with the term “race”. Although persecution on the grounds of nationality (as with race) is not specific to women or men, in many instances the nature of the persecution takes a gender-specific form, most commonly that of sexual violence directed against women and girls.

Membership of a Particular Social Group

28. Gender-related claims have often been analysed within the parameters of this ground, making a proper understanding of this term of paramount importance. However, in some cases, the emphasis given to the social group ground has meant that other applicable grounds, such as religion or political opinion, have been over-looked. Therefore, the interpretation given to this ground cannot render the other four Convention grounds superfluous.

29. Thus, a particular social group is a group of persons who share a common characteristic other than their risk of being persecuted, or who are perceived as a group by society. The characteristic will often be one which is innate, unchangeable, or which is otherwise fundamental to identity, conscience or the exercise of one’s human rights.

30. It follows that sex can properly be within the ambit of the social group category, with women being a clear example of a social subset defined by innate and immutable characteristics, and who are frequently treated differently than men. Their characteristics also identify them as a group in society, subjecting them to different treatment and standards in some countries. Equally, this definition would encompass homosexuals, transsexuals, or transvestites.

31. The size of the group has sometimes been used as a basis for refusing to recognise ‘women’ generally as a particular social group. This argument has no basis in fact or reason, as the other grounds are not bound by this question of size. There should equally be no requirement that the particular social group be cohesive or that members of it voluntarily associate, or that every member of the group is at risk of persecution. It is well-accepted that it should be possible to identify the group independently of the persecution, however, discrimination or persecution may be a relevant factor in determining the visibility of the group in a particular context.

Political Opinion

32. Under this ground, a claimant must show that he or she has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for holding certain political opinions (usually different from those of the Government or parts of the society), or because the holding of such opinions has been attributed to him or her. Political opinion should be understood in the broad sense, to incorporate any opinion on any matter in which the machinery of State, government, society, or policy may be engaged. This may include an opinion as to gender roles. It would also include non-conformist behaviour which leads the persecutor to impute a political opinion to him or her. In this sense, there is not as such an inherently political or an inherently non-political activity, but the context of the case should determine its nature. A claim on the basis of political opinion does, however, presuppose that the claimant holds or is assumed to hold opinions not tolerated by the authorities or society, which are critical of their policies, traditions or methods. It also presupposes that such opinions have come or could come to the notice of the authorities or relevant parts of the society, or are attributed by them to the claimant. It is not always necessary to have expressed such an opinion, or to have already suffered any form of discrimination or persecution. In such cases the test of well-founded fear would be based on an assessment of the consequences that a claimant having certain dispositions would have to face if he or she returned.

33. The image of a political refugee as someone who is fleeing persecution for his or her direct involvement in political activity does not always correspond to the reality of the experiences of women in some societies. Women are less likely than their male counterparts to engage in high profile political activity and are more often involved in ‘low level’ political activities that reflect dominant gender roles. For example, a woman may work in nursing sick rebel soldiers, in the recruitment of sympathisers, or in the preparation and dissemination of leaflets. Women are also frequently attributed with political opinions of their family or male relatives, and subjected to persecution because of the activities of their male relatives. While this may be analysed in the context of an imputed political opinion, it may also be analysed as being persecution for reasons of her membership of a particular social group, being her “family”. These factors need to be taken into account in gender-related claims.

34. Equally important for gender-related claims is to recognise that a woman may not wish to engage in certain activities, such as providing meals to government soldiers, which may be interpreted by the persecutor(s) as holding a contrary political opinion.


35. Persons raising gender-related refugee claims, and survivors of torture or trauma in particular, require a supportive environment where they can be reassured of the confidentiality of their claim. Some claimants, because of the shame they feel over what has happened to them, or due to trauma, may be reluctant to identify the true extent of the persecution suffered or feared. They may continue to fear persons in authority, or they may fear rejection and/or reprisals from their family and/or community.

36. Against this background, in order to ensure that gender-related claims, of women in particular, are properly considered in the refugee status determination process, the following measures should be borne in mind:

i. Women asylum-seekers should be interviewed separately, without the presence of male family members, in order to ensure that they have an opportunity to present their case. It should be explained to them that they may have a valid claim in their own right.

ii. It is essential that women are given information about the status determination process, access to it, as well as legal advice, in a manner and language that she understands.

iii. Claimants should be informed of the choice to have interviewers and interpreters of the same sex as themselves, and they should be provided automatically for women claimants. Interviewers and interpreters should also be aware of and responsive to any cultural or religious sensitivities or personal factors such as age and level of education.

iv. An open and reassuring environment is often crucial to establishing trust between the interviewer and the claimant, and should help the full disclosure of sometimes sensitive and personal information. The interview room should be arranged in such a way as to encourage discussion, promote confidentiality and to lessen any possibility of perceived power imbalances.

v. The interviewer should take the time to introduce him/herself and the interpreter to the claimant, explain clearly the roles of each person, and the exact purpose of the interview. The claimant should be assured that his/her claim will be treated in the strictest confidence, and information provided by the claimant will not be provided to members of his/her family. Importantly, the interviewer should explain that he/she is not a trauma counselor.

vi. The interviewer should remain neutral, compassionate and objective during the interview, and should avoid body language or gestures that may be perceived as intimidating or culturally insensitive or inappropriate. The interviewer should allow the claimant to present his/her claim with minimal interruption.

vii. Both ‘open-ended’ and specific questions which may help to reveal gender issues relevant to a refugee claim should be incorporated into all asylum interviews. Women who have been involved in indirect political activity or to whom political opinion has been attributed, for example, often do not provide relevant information in interviews due to the male-oriented nature of the questioning. Female claimants may also fail to relate questions that are about ‘torture’ to the types of harm which they fear (such as rape, sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, ‘honour killings’, forced marriage, etc.).

viii. Particularly for victims of sexual violence or other forms of trauma, second and subsequent interviews may be needed in order to establish trust and to obtain all necessary information. In this regard, interviewers should be responsive to the trauma and emotion of claimants and should stop an interview where the claimant is becoming emotionally distressed.

ix. Where it is envisaged that a particular case may give rise to a gender-related claim, adequate preparation is needed, which will also allow a relationship of confidence and trust with the claimant to be developed, as well as allowing the interviewer to ask the right questions and deal with any problems that may arise during an interview.

x. Country of origin information should be collected that has relevance in women’s claims, such as the position of women before the law, the political rights of women, the social and economic rights of women, the cultural and social mores of the country and consequences for non-adherence, the prevalence of such harmful traditional practices, the incidence and forms of reported violence against women, the protection available to them, any penalties imposed on those who perpetrate the violence, and the risks that a woman might face on her return to her country of origin after making a claim for refugee status.

xi. The type and level of emotion displayed during the recounting of her experiences should not affect a woman’s credibility. Interviewers and decision-makers should understand that cultural differences and trauma play an important and complex role in determining behaviour. For some cases, it may be appropriate to seek objective psychological or medical evidence. It is unnecessary to establish the precise details of the act of rape or sexual assault itself, but events leading up to, and after, the act, the surrounding circumstances and details (such as, use of guns, any words or phrases spoken by the perpetrators, type of assault, where it occurred and how, details of the perpetrators (e.g. soldiers, civilians) etc.) as well as the motivation of the perpetrator may be required. In some circumstances it should be noted that a woman may not be aware of the reasons for her abuse.

xii. Mechanisms for referral to psycho-social counseling and other support services should be made available where necessary. Best practice recommends that trained psycho-social counselors be available to assist the claimant before and after the interview.

Evidentiary Matters

37. No documentary proof as such is required in order for the authorities to recognise a refugee claim, however, information on practices in the country of origin may support a particular case. It is important to recognise that in relation to gender-related claims, the usual types of evidence used in other refugee claims may not be as readily available. Statistical data or reports on the incidence of sexual violence may not be available, due to under-reporting of cases, or lack of prosecution. Alternative forms of information might assist, such as the testimonies of other women similarly situated in written reports or oral testimony, of non-governmental or international organisations or other independent research.


38. Depending on the respective legal traditions, there have been two general approaches taken by States to ensure a gender-sensitive application of refugee law and in particular of the refugee definition. Some States have incorporated legal interpretative guidance and/or procedural safeguards within legislation itself, while others have preferred to develop policy and legal guidelines on the same for decision-makers. UNHCR encourages States who have not already done so to ensure a gender-sensitive application of refugee law and procedures, and stands ready to assist States in this regard.

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