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Summer Conversation Series with Mónica Roa: “Women’s Rights in Latin America: Impact of Strategic Litigation”

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“Women’s Link has afforded me the privilege of constructing new paradigms in my work, of understanding our role as the new generation of feminists who use the law as an agent of social change to make gender justice a reality. The challenge of constructing an organization with its own principles is a constant reminder that change begins at home and that the best reward is to see young men and women finding the inspiration to follow a professional path dedicated to equality and justice, whether at Women’s Link or wherever it is that they may find it.” –Mónica Roa.

On June 12, 2012, as part of the Summer Conversations Series, the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law invited Ms. Monica Roa, Director of Programs at Women’s Link Worldwide, to speak about Women’s Rights in Latin America: Impact of Strategic Litigation.  Women’s Link Worldwide is an international human rights organization “working to ensure that gender equality is a reality around the world, through the implementation of international human rights standards and strategic work with the courts, including strategic litigation.”[1]

Ms. Roa began by showing a video recounting the strategies behind the petition she filed in 2005 before the Constitutional Court of Colombia that ultimately decriminalized abortion in the country and legalized it under three circumstances: rape; malformations incompatible with life outside the uterus; and when the women’s life or health –physical and mental- is in danger.

 Ms. Roa explained how the petition was Women’s Link’s first “high impact litigation” project and the importance of first “mapping” the political and legal situation in Colombia to develop the litigation strategy.  In the process, they realized that if they asked for the complete legalization of abortion, it would have likely received a negative response, given the political and legal situation in Colombia at the time. Therefore, requesting the legalization of abortion under specific circumstances, made the legalization of abortion more achievable.

Part of the legal strategy that was used focused on making the debate a public health issue and not a religious or moral issue. Using some of the statistics from different research institutions showing that unsafe abortion is the third cause of maternal mortality; it was easy to argue that unsafe abortions had become a public health concern.  However, their work not only focused on the legal aspects, but also gathering support from allies and creating a united communications strategy. Many of their allies went beyond the traditional women’s rights organizations that had been already working on the ground, and one of the main communication objectives was to make abortion a national issue.

Even though, the legalization of abortion was a great success for the protection of women’s rights in Colombia, Ms. Roa explained how in order to make these rights a reality, legalization is not enough. By the Court’s mere recognition of access to abortion as a right, it is the government’s obligation to take the necessary actions to make abortion accessible and safe to all women, regardless of their socio-economic status.

Ms. Roa also stated that the implementation of the decision has been a great challenge. Even though, after the decision from the Constitutional Court, the Ministry of Health had adopted all the guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) on safe abortions, these guidelines were legally challenged on the basis that the Minister of Health had overstepped its powers in adopting them. The guidelines were temporarily suspended by the Supreme Administrative Court (Consejo de Estado), while the Administrative Court made a decision on the merits of the case. However, this happened about five years ago, and, as of today, the guidelines are still suspended. The Supreme Administrative Court has not yet made a final decision and there is no indication that it will make one any time soon.  

The Women’s Link’s work in Colombia spread quickly throughout the Latin American region and, very soon, other countries began applying similar strategies with the help of Women’s Link. Ms. Roa recounted how the organization has been invited to countries all over the Latin American region to give their support to local initiatives. Recently, they have expanded their work outside the region to some countries in Africa, where they first need to map the context before designing legal strategies specific to the country.

On her work in Africa, Ms. Roa explained that in some countries, people are not even aware of their country’s abortion laws. In some legal statutes, Women’s Link found “health exceptions” to total prohibitions. These “health exceptions” have opened the door to the practice of legal abortions. These exceptions allow the practice of the medical procedure in the cases where the health of the mother is at risk. Part of the their work has been to make sure that health is  understood as it is defined by WHO and the International Convent on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

Not only in Africa, but also in Latin America, where the abortion laws are stricter, along initiatives for legal reform, other strategies focus on providing information to women who are seeking medical help for unwanted pregnancies all the options available, including adoption, keeping the baby or interrupting the pregnancy, and indicating which are the most dangerous practices as well as the safest ones. Most importantly, women must be encouraged to seek immediate medical help if they undergo an unsafe abortion.  Ms. Roa explained how some of these strategies have decreased the mortality rate because of the practice of unsafe abortions.

Finally, Ms. Roa stressed the important role that the use of international human rights standards has played in their legal strategies at the domestic level and how crucial it is to create strategies that adapt to the circumstances of each country.  She also stressed the importance of the complementary strategic alliances from different organizations that provide technical and political support to this cause.


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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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