Psychologist Speaks on Women Fleeing Gender-Based Violence

Kim Baranowski, a humanitarian and clinical psychologist, spoke in Paino Lecture Hall on Oct. 16 about the psychological conditions of women fleeing gender-based violence. Her talk was sponsored by the Center for Community Engagement and the anthropology and sociology departments.

Baranowski currently serves as the associate director of the Mount Sinai Human Rights Clinic, where she manages pro bono psychological evaluations for U.S. asylum seekers and documents the effects of human rights violations they may have encountered. She also teaches clinical psychology and research at Columbia.

Baranowski began her talk by briefly describing the global refugee crisis and the lack of sufficient support to adequately manage the movement of displaced peoples.

“Just at a glance, we are experiencing a severe human rights crisis around the world,” she said. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of 2017, 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

Baranowski outlined three categories used to process displaced people under U.S. refugee and asylum policy: conventional refugees, who apply for refugee status from outside of the U.S.; affirmative asylum seekers, who have temporary legal status within the U.S. and actively apply for asylum before removal; and defensive asylum seekers, who apply for asylum during removal proceedings.

Applicants for each of these groups must prove that they are no longer able to live in their home country due to reasonable fear and/or proof of persecution and only if such persecution is based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion.

“The majority of folks that we see at the Human Rights Program are individuals who are not formally processed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement,” said Baranowski. “Typically, these are defensive asylum seekers. For them, the process of being granted asylum is much more laborious, and in many cases, adversarial. They have many more hoops to jump through.”

Baranowski’s research focuses on women fleeing gender-based violence, which she defined as persecution based on one’s sex or gender, from the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“With the Northern Triangle, it’s not so much that we see harmful traditional practices like child marriage or female genital mutilation, but we do see high rates of physical and sexual violence, as well as socioeconomic violence in terms of opportunities for women to take care of themselves financially,” she said. “Not only are they exposed to gender-based violence across their lifespan in their home country, but they can also experience gender-based violence across their migration and resettlement.”

Baranowski emphasized that the women who flee gender-based violence do not do so for just economic reasons, but because they feel a genuine fear, often spurred by a threat of immediate violence.

“The majority of women who do seek asylum in the U.S. first attempt to live somewhere else in their country,” she said. “It’s a very traumatic process having to leave everything behind, sometimes even their children.”

Speaking about her particular role working with asylum seekers, she described the importance of psychological evaluations in corroborating the stories of asylum seekers.

“When someone is applying for asylum, the burden of proof is on that individual,” she said. “And it’s very hard to prove that you were persecuted in your country of origin, especially if you don’t have tangible evidence. So, in the case of many women fleeing violence, the only proof is her credibility. That’s often going to hinge on the physical or psychological manifestations of the trauma they experienced.”

As an example, she noted how trauma severely affects memory, meaning an asylum seeker’s recollection of their persecution can often be inconsistent. According to Baranowski, the provision of forensic psychological evaluations like the ones offered by her clinic can act as proof of asylum seekers’ need for refuge— this is evidenced by an 89 percent asylum grant rate among asylum seekers who utilized the Human Rights Clinic, compared to the nationwide rate of 35 percent.

Baranowski finished the talk by focusing on the idea of resilience, both during and after the asylum-seeking process. “The story doesn’t just end at getting asylum. It’s just the beginning, and there’s a lot of lasting effects that the individual has to deal with,” she said. “It’s really about how resilient they can be, and how much support we can offer them.”

Eliza Hersh ’16, an Amherst alumni involved with the Human Rights Clinic, spoke after the talk about the importance of this work. “It’s striking how effective [psychological evaluations are] for asylum seekers. It’s such a useful tool, and we’ve created this structure that makes it happen quite efficiently, so we feel that every client should have one if possible,” she said.