A Women's Rights Advocate in the Midst of Bloodshed -- Her Path to Asylum

12/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The recent intensification of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo ("DRC") is but a recent surge in a war that has claimed now, over 5.4 million lives, despite a so-called peace agreement entered into in January of this year. The media, for the past several weeks, has been flooded with reports of displaced victims and images of injured or dead civilians, often children. While the horrendous human rights violations and systemic use of violence by all parties (government and various rebel groups) never stopped, this renewed violence gives cause for further concern and a call to rise to action.

The victims of the atrocities are countless. And yet, in the midst of this pervasive violence -- indeed, because of it -- some have found the courage to speak out against government-sponsored violence, particularly violence against women, which is grossly underreported and often unpunished. In the DRC, women are still considered second-class citizens, and are themselves punished (by their families and communities) for the rape and other sexual abuse to which they are subjected.

I met one such young woman who had, as the cliché goes, "had enough" of the human rights violations she observed on a daily basis. After witnessing her cousin and close friend killed by government police for no reason other than being at the wrong place at the wrong time, Cassandra,[1] took action. She began to write letters to her mayor and governor, and organized a candlelight vigil in honor of her murdered friend. The police dispersed this peaceful demonstration with violence. Her basic request was that women be treated equally -- have the same rights as men. She was laughed at. Then threatened. She joined a women's rights group that had recently been formed in her town, and very quickly assumed a leadership position in the organization. The group discussed such innocuous topics as organizing a plan for community awareness and safety (i.e., women should not walk alone at night), and teaching basic human rights to the community. In response, the police called her a "trouble maker" and told her she would "pay with her life" for continuing her peaceful criticism of the government. They also told her they would kill the remaining members of her family, or make sure she would never see them again.

Despite these threats, Cassandra continued to fight for her cause -- the cause of so many oppressed people. She fought until the night the police came to her house, beat her and her husband, and carted her off to prison. Her crime? The government asked her who, or what organization or opposition group was behind her women's rights group, for they could not imagine that women could, would, or should, organize to help themselves. It was unfathomable that women, particularly a young woman like Cassandra, could have the courage and strength to stand up to the brutality of the regime.

As Cassandra was beaten and sexually abused on a daily basis in prison, the guards continued to interrogate her regarding her so-called supporters. Because Cassandra was telling the truth when she told them that her group had no sponsors, and because this truth was beyond the understanding of her captors, she was mercilessly violated. After two weeks in prison, Cassandra was sent to meet with the head executioner for a formal interrogation. Fortuitously, the head executioner was a family friend who recognized Cassandra and believed her when she said that no opposition group was sponsoring her activities. Knowing full-well that Cassandra's fate was to continue to be tortured, beaten, sexually abused, and deprived of food and water until the day she would finally be executed, this family friend helped Cassandra plan her escape from the abominable prison and instructed her to leave the country. Cassandra crossed the border into Zambia where, out of desperation and fear for her life, she used the visa of her cousin and came to Los Angeles, where she now resides. She left behind a child of a year and a half and does not know of the whereabouts of her husband -- or whether he is still alive.

Cassandra now works two jobs. After I helped her apply and obtain her work authorization, Cassandra has been a tax-paying member of society -- working legally and contributing to our economy. Her dream is to become a nurse -- furthering her consistent desire to help people, in any way she can. She was declined financial aid because she is not a United States citizen, and does not have the funds to pay for the tuition. Her career, and dream, is thus, once again, thwarted.

Cassandra has been in removal proceedings before the United States Immigration Court since May 2007. I met Cassandra last August, when she desperately needed an attorney to help her navigate the complexities of the Immigration Court and asylum proceedings. I felt an overwhelming sense of urgency in helping Cassandra stay here in the United States, where she can continue her advocacy work without fear of reprisal.

We are asking the court to grant her asylum under the Immigration and Nationality Act and the Convention Against Torture. If she is forced to return, she will surely be captured, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. I want Cassandra to know that political expression, particularly the fight for equality, is something that is not only tolerated in the U.S., but very much revered.

[1] Name has been changed for her protection.