Central American Solo Moms face many dangers in their home countries
In 2015, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, under guidance from the Homeland Security Department, broadened its definition of immigrants eligible to apply for asylum. It stated that single mothers from Central America were eligible to apply for asylum as a targeted group if they can make the case that they have credible fear of returning to their home countries.
Almost immediately, people opposing a broadening of eligibility for asylum protested. Critics said that one should not be considered at extra risk simply because one is a female head of household and that this is a sexist way of looking at single mothers. Jessica Vaughan, policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, called the new guidelines “absurd” and claimed that there is “no conceivable connection” between single motherhood and persecution in Central American countries.
The reality is, however, that single mothers from Central America are at greater risk for being targeted as a specific group, but not for being heads of the household. The danger stems from the fact that they are women, though being a Solo Mom may further increase their risk. Here’s why:
- Central American countries have high rates of homicide and, in particular, femicide: instances in which someone is murdered because she is female. Oftentimes, victims of femicide also show evidence of torture and rape. El Salvador has recently had the highest rate of femicide in the world, with about 2,250 femicides between 2010 and 2013. Honduras and Guatemala have similarly high rates. Women living in these countries have a legitimate fear of being targeted.
- While violence against women is one part of the problem, impunity is another. Figures from 2013 indicate that, despite the prevalence of women being murdered in Central American countries, only a disheartening 2% were investigated in Guatemala, and 2% in Honduras, as well. It seems evident that, in countries where femicide is both extremely prevalent and very infrequently investigated, women are at risk by virtue of being women because those who commit these crimes have little reason to fear legal consequences.
- Solo Moms have additional risk factors. A report by the World Health Organization about femicide stated that two factors that increase someone’s risk of being a victim of femicide are pregnancy and presence of a child from a previous relationship.
- Femicide is only one of many reasons for Solo-Mom immigrants fleeing Central American countries to have credible fear. Women in these countries are disproportionately subjected to numerous other forms of violence, including sexual assault. The fact that they are mothers means that they are caring for others who depend on them, which may prevent or thwart attempts to escape a dangerous situation. Additionally, drug-related and gang violence in Central American countries, which has increased dramatically over the past decade, often entails intimidation of or violence toward family members as a means of making a statement or gaining control. For example, a common method of gang recruitment in Central American countries is to threaten or attack someone’s family members if someone fails to accept the “invitation” to join the gang. Oftentimes, it’s the mothers, sisters, and daughters who are threatened, beaten, sexually assaulted, or killed in the interest of gang recruitment. Another common atrocity popular in gangs is perpetrating violent attacks on women and girls as revenge for what they perceive as wrongdoing by rival gangs.
- Human trafficking is another risk for Central American women. Too often, women, with or without their children, are sold into slavery in exchange for drugs, to pay off drug-related debt, or simply because it is highly lucrative.
Gender-based violence against women is a worldwide epidemic, and Central American countries are by no means alone with the problem. But the toxic combination of long-standing cultural devaluing of women, dramatic upsurge in drug trafficking and related violence, and lack of consequences for perpetrators of violence against women and girls add up to credible fear. It is now up to the United States to take credible fear of Solo Mom immigrants from Central America seriously; to hear their stories without prejudice, delay, or undue burden; and to do the right thing. No Solo Mom and no woman anywhere should be thrust back into a violent situation from which they have managed, against the odds, to escape.
Susan Lemere is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.
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