Shaping a New, Gender-Just Precedent

Viviana Waisman, the founder of Women’s Link Worldwide, is fighting for gender justice around the world by using the law to protect and advance the rights of women and girls. 

Viviana Waisman, President and CEO of Women’s Link Worldwide

Latin America, Europe, and East Africa

Viviana an expert in women's rights and international human rights law and founded Women's Link in 2001. Photo by Women's Link.

In 1993, the UN General Assembly presented a framework for the Elimination of Violence Against Women that created an international infrastructure to tackle this widespread issue. However, almost 30 years later, UN Women reports, “Discriminatory laws and social norms remain pervasive and women continue to be underrepresented at all levels of political leadership.” 

Social entrepreneur and international human rights law expert Viviana Waisman believes existing legal systems, which often lack a gendered perspective, pose significant barriers to advancing women and girls’ rights around the world. In the late 1990s, Viviana began what would become “Women’s Link Worldwide (Women’s Link) to not only change laws to better protect women but to catalyze a larger social movement that sustains legal shifts and normalizes a “gendered perspective.” According to Viviana, applying the law with a gendered perspective requires lawmakers to consider the ways policies specifically impact women and girls.  

Viviana’s grandparents were Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe who settled in Argentina right before World War II. But, as a result of the coup in Argentina in 1976, her parents were forced to flee to the United States. For generations, the fate of Viviana’s family was at the whim of various political and legal systems. Shaped within the realm of comparative worlds, Viviana became fascinated by the various societal conditions that must exist for justice to prevail. To better understand the role law can play in this fight, she studied human rights law and embarked on a career in this field to create systems conducive to a more just world. 

Today, Women’s Link creatively uses human rights principles in litigation and advocacy campaigns to change discriminatory laws and create jurisprudence that promotes the human rights of women and girls. Women’s Link is made up of a legion of lawyers, activists, and volunteers who share the same drive for a gender-just society. As a part of litigation, Women’s Link engages the media, leaders in civil society, and gender experts to promote public debate and mobilize society to stand up for women’s and girls’ rights.  

Scaling Up: Justice through Innovation

Women’s Link has litigated more than 20 pioneering cases before national and international legal bodies and achieved over a dozen important wins that transformed how the law is applied to better protect the rights of women and girls. Women’s Link currently has dozens of active cases in East Africa, Europe, and Latin America. At Ashoka’s Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship (WISE) this form of impact – when legal systems are strengthened or laws and policies changed or enforced – is “scaling up.” Changing a country’s laws to be gender-just affects not only women and girls today, but entire generations to come. 

In partnership with national organizations, Women’s Link has advanced women’s legal rights in Colombia, Guatemala, Argentina, Spain, and Rwanda. In Colombia in 2006, Women’s Link was able to decriminalize abortion, a country with a blanket ban on the procedure–even to save the life of the woman. According to Doctors Without Borders, unsafe abortions in Colombia are estimated to be responsible for 10% of maternal deaths and some 130,000 complications annually. To achieve what failed six times previously, Women’s Link’s lawyer Mónica Roa harnessed the organization’s innovative approach: they took the case to the Constitutional Court and framed the issue as a matter of human rights. Building on years of efforts by the feminist movement to change the law in the legislature, Women’s Link achieved the landmark ruling (C-355/06) which legalized abortion in cases of incest, danger to the health of the mother, cases of rape, involuntary insemination, serious fetal deformity, and when the mother is under 14 years of age.

In the forefront, Senior Communications and Advocacy Officer Carolina Dueñas and Staff Attorney Valeria Pedraza during a rally in front of Colombia's Constitutional Court to demand the elimination of the crime of abortion from the Penal Code in November 2021. Photo by Women's Link Worldwide.

In Rwanda, Women’s Link provided expert testimony which, in partnership with national attorneys, led to an important shift in how the criminal code handles “pregnancy-related crimes.” This 2019 Supreme Court case involved a woman from a low-income rural community who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for infanticide, or the intentional killing of an infant, after having a miscarriage. In the case, Women’s Link served as a “friend of the court,” or amicus, to provide the judges with additional information that highlighted the barriers faced by marginalized women and girls to access necessary healthcare.  

By presenting information detailing the inaccessibility of the healthcare system for mothers, the president of Rwanda pardoned the woman and released 367 other women and girls from jail convicted of similar crimes. Women’s Link’s contribution also resulted in a change in the criminal code that reduced the punishment for such crimes. 

These successes are only a few examples of the many legal wins led directly or supported by Women’s Link that have sparked structural change in national legal systems. Others entail protecting the reproductive rights of migrant women and girls from Venezuela, setting a legal standard in Colombia that forced contraception and forced abortion are forms of sexual and gender-based violence that constitute war crimes, and winning the first-ever intersectional discrimination case at the European Court of Human Rights. 

Social Foundations for Gender Justice

In tandem with these legal efforts, Women’s Link is addressing gender discrimination outside the courtroom that upholds and perpetuates these systems of inequality. As Viviana said, “In fact, most of our time isn’t spent before a judge or legal body, but making sure that the path is clear for the greatest social impact possible. We’re successful in building these tailored strategies because we read the context – the spokespeople, decision-makers, and public opinion – and then use that information to customize our approach.” 

For example, Women’s Link utilized the power of public discourse and debate sparked by a 2018 case in Spain to highlight and address the deadly consequences of gender bias. Women’s Link litigated a case that involved a woman named Ángela who was the victim of domestic violence when her ex-husband murdered her 6-year-old daughter and then committed suicide during an unsupervised, but court-ordered, visit. Before the homicide, she had filed over 30 cases seeking protection for herself and her daughter and had asked for supervised visitation rights due to his violent nature.  

From left to right: Gema Fernández, Managing Attorney, and Women's Link's client Ángela González during a press conference in July 2018, after the Supreme Court of Spain recognized the responsibility of the Spanish State in the murder of her daughter. Photo by Women's Link Worldwide

Vivana explained, “The importance of this case globally is that it addresses how gender stereotyping is an obstacle to achieving justice for women. These stereotypes are gender stereotypes: women are more sensitive, weaker, mean, manipulative, and women lie in order to get custody. These stereotypes are what prevented [Ángela] from being able to protect herself and her daughter.” 

Ángela brought a case against the Spanish courts for the State’s failure to protect her daughter. Despite appealing her case to the highest tribunal in Spain, she had not received justice. Then, Women’s Link took Ángela’s case to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and argued that the Spanish government violated her right to “not be subjected to gender-based violence.” CEDAW ruled that Ángela’s rights had been violated by Spain. Women’s Link’s attorneys then had to step in again to ensure the national court system granted Ángela the reparations ordered by the UN Committee. Thanks to all these efforts, the Spanish Supreme Court finally acknowledged their obligation to abide by CEDAW’s binding recommendations and provided her reparations for the moral damages she suffered. 

Socially, this case started a conversation about the issue of violence against women in Spain and what happens when courts operate with gender bias. The Spanish government now officially reports on the number of children killed by abusive fathers and classifies them as victims of gender-based violence.  

The Battle Continues

After three trailblazing decades of fighting for women and girls’ rights, Viviana reflected that global legal gains and setbacks act like a pendulum, with significant advances followed by fighting rollback. Additionally, Viviana is worried about the rise in what she calls the “anti-rights” groups who are well-organized, well-funded, and act globally to reverse rights for women and LGBTQ people, rescind reproductive health and abortion access, and fight against comprehensive sexual education. 

Yet, the momentum for advancing rights is undeniable and the strongest it’s ever been. Viviana said, “There is a collective breaking of the silence of what happens to women and girls, every single day, everywhere in the world and this movement is so strong. I see this next generation of feminists, and I see no turning back; this is the wave of the future.”  

After 20 years, Viviana and her team at Women’s Link are continuing to lead the charge on some of the most pressing issues women and girls face: increasing access to reproductive rights and combatting gender-based violence and discrimination in Latin America, Europe, and East Africa. They are not only working to change laws to protect women and girls, but also the social conditions that contribute to global insecurity. This innovative use of the law has changed the lives of countless women over the past two decades. 

By Audrey Lodes