To win asylum in the United States, applicants must show specific grounds for their persecution back home, like their race, religion, political affiliation or membership in a particular social group. Lawyers have sometimes pushed successfully for women to qualify as a social group because of the overwhelming violence they face, citing a 2014 case in which a Guatemalan woman fleeing domestic violence was found to be eligible to apply for asylum in the United States.
But Mr. Sessions overruled that precedent, questioning whether women — in particular, women fleeing domestic violence — can be members of a social group. The decision challenged what had become common practice in asylum courts.
Then, last month, the new attorney general, William P. Barr, went further. Breaking with decades of precedent, he issued a decision making it harder for families, like Lubia’s, to qualify as social groups also.
Violence against women in the region is so prevalent that 18 countries have passed laws to protect them, creating a class of homicide known as femicide, which adds tougher penalties and greater law enforcement attention to the issue.
And yet, despite that broad effort, the new laws have failed to reduce the killings of girls and women in the region, the United Nations says.
That reflects how deep the gender gap runs. For the new laws to make a difference, experts say, they must go far beyond punishment to change education, political discourse, social norms and basic family dynamics.
Though gangs and cartels in the region play a role in the violence, most women are killed by lovers, family members, husbands or partners — men angered by women acting independently, enraged by jealousy or, like Gehovany, driven by a deeply ingrained sense of control over women’s lives.