Meet the team of lawyers fighting gender discrimination around the world
An International Women's Day collaboration with elDiario.es and our sister newsletter, Les Glorieuses
By Marta Borraz for elDiario.es (Spain)
Happy International Women’s Day! To mark the occasion, the Impact and Les Glorieuses newsletters are delighted to republish the below article from elDiario.es, about the international team of lawyers working to end gender inequality around the world, one legal battle at a time.
In Colombia, abortion is decriminalised up to 24 weeks; in Spain, the children of abused women are recognised as direct victims of that abuse. These are but two examples of battles won by Women’s Link Worldwide, an international organisation founded in 2001 with an ambition to bring major cases to court to end discrimination against women and girls around the world.
Today, around 20 professionals are involved with Women’s Link Worldwide, most of them lawyers, based in Madrid, Bogotá and Nairobi. Their strategy is to leverage the power of the law to achieve change. In practice, this means identifying discrepancies between rights recognised on paper — whether in constitutions, international treaties or national laws — and the everyday reality for women, who in many cases do not enjoy these rights. Then they spring into action, sometimes in conjunction with other associations.
Their main tool is strategic litigation, meaning they pursue cases that can have a widespread impact.
“We look for cases that can result in structural change, ones that can have a lasting impact beyond that specific case,” says Esteffany Molina, a senior lawyer at Women’s Link Worldwide.
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Managing attorney Gema Fernández says they choose cases that concern structural discrimination — meaning cases that apply to many women, not just to one individual who had bad luck or was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This discrimination occurs because “there is something that doesn’t work, a violation of human rights,” Molina says. The aim is to correct these violations.
One of the most significant legal actions initiated by Women’s Link was the case of Ángela González Carreño, a Spanish woman who was a survivor of domestic violence. Carreño had left her home, taking her daughter, Andrea, with her, but her ex-husband’s abuse continued. Carreño filed more than 30 complaints and repeatedly asked the court to protect her daughter, but her requests were never granted. In 2003, her ex-husband murdered seven-year-old Andrea during an unsupervised visit.
Carreño tirelessly tried to prove that the Spanish state bore responsibility for her daughter’s death, something that was finally recognised in 2014 by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), where Women's Link argued the case. The verdict ordered Spain to compensate Carreño but also imposed several general obligations, including training for judges to avoid reproducing gender stereotypes and “taking appropriate measures” so that gender violence is taken into account when determining child custody.
“The impact of that case was global,” says Molina. She points out how much Spain has progressed legally and socially in protecting victims’ children since then; society now sees them as direct victims, as does the law, as of 2015. Spain has also begun to track the number of children murdered in situations like Carreño’s.
In Chile in 2021, Women’s Link joined with the local organisation Miles Chile in a class-action lawsuit for the almost 300 women who had experienced unwanted pregnancies because of defective contraception pills made by the pharmaceutical company Grünenthal. They managed to get the company to compensate victims and to persuade the United Nations to ask Chile to allow abortion in such situations; it is now one of the three allowable grounds to terminate a pregnancy.
Women’s Link was also one of the organisations that fought a regulation passed by the Partido Popular in 2014 preventing Spanish women without male partners from accessing fertility treatments. The specific case concerned a Madrid hospital that had refused a lesbian couple seeking fertility services. The court ruled against the Region of Madrid and determined that the 2014 regulation was discriminatory. In November 2021, the Spanish government implemented these rights on a national level.
Fernández says it is important for Women’s Link involvement to extend beyond the strictly legal field. “Judicial proceedings do not take place in a vacuum but within a social context, which we mobilise prior to the trial. We don’t do this alone.”
When members of Women’s Link talk about using “the power of the law” to promote change, they mean that when they litigate a case, they think of all the possibilities that national legislation, international treaties and human rights standards provide them, nationally and internationally.
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While legal victories are the ultimate goal, losing in court does not imply failure. Fernández defines the legal process as “a catalyst,” but says, “it is not the only important thing. There may be cases we know are difficult in advance, but what we want is to set the foundations, to create a debate, to make people listen to new perspectives or to articulate human rights discourses, to unmask hoaxes, to create new narratives and so on. Although we may not win, we will have taken steps, and will probably have made the land more fertile for future action.”
Molina says the law is “a versatile tool that must be adapted to current contexts.” What does this mean? “Although there are tools that are not specifically designed for a precise type of law, it is up to feminist lawyers to think about them creatively. The law has always been masculine, and the cases that are taught in law school are very strict, but we believe we can think about them in another way.”
She cites an example from almost two years ago, when the organisation argued a collective rights suit in Colombia concerning Venezuelan women who did not enjoy the right to sexual and reproductive health services because of their immigration status. Womens’ Link argued that these rights were “collective rights,” just like personal security or a healthy environment. In this case, a tool not designed for this specific purpose ended up serving the feminist cause.
Towards Equality is an international collaborative journalism program aiming to highlight the challenges and solutions on the path to reaching gender equality. To mark International Women's Day, Sparknews has invited 14 international news outlets to highlight gender issues, focusing on the women, men, NGOs, citizen movements and policies working to tackle the gender gap and build stronger, fairer and more sustainable societies.