Supporting advocates of legal abortions and lesbian rights is among the priorities of the newest UN super-agency, UN Women, evidenced in their first major publication released last week.
“In Pursuit of Justice” details the progress made in advancing women’s rights worldwide through changing legal norms and ending discriminatory provisions of national laws. In particular, the publication focuses on how strategic litigation has “revolutionized the scope of international law” by bringing international influence to national courts through the recommendations of CEDAW and other treaty monitoring bodies, and UN Special Rapporteurs.
Stating that the “criminal prohibition of abortion in all circumstances violates women’s fundamental rights, ” the report praises the 2006 judgment of the Constitutional Court of Colombia, which ruled that the country was obliged to provide abortion in certain circumstances on the basis of Columbia’s international agreements. The report also celebrates the success of women’s legal advocacy in Nepal, which recently legalized and expanded state provision of abortion services. These and other strategic litigation cases in Latin America “confirm women’s right to reproductive health, including safe abortion,” the report claims.
Another section of the publication urges countries to reform laws that criminalize lesbian women and abolish penalties against them. Citing conclusions of the Human Rights Committee, it claims that laws which prohibit homosexual acts between women “deny lesbian, transgender, and bisexual women the protection of the law and limit their access to services,” and as such can be considered explicit legal discrimination against women.
Drawing heavily from the CEDAW committee’s recommendations, the report encourages extending the scope of legal advocacy and international influence into the realm of the family, a space that had previously been considered “outside justice.” Admitting that this area is normally the purview of customs and religions, the report encourages women’s legal organizations that bring national and international norms to bear on the private sphere. According to the report, legal advocacy groups and the nation’s ratification of CEDAW are key tools in ensuring that religious and customary laws and practices are brought in conformity with international human rights standards, and that no “custom, tradition or religious tenet” can be used to justify violence or discrimination against women and girls.
The report concludes that the number one priority for making justice systems work for women is the necessity of supporting women’s legal organizations, who undertake most of the strategic litigation and attempts at reform of national legal systems and religious and customary laws.
A number of these reforms were touted as victories during this spring’s UN Commission on the Status of Women, where women’s legal organizations attributed their success in litigation to their targeting of Christian denominations, and building provisions for the importance of international law into national constitutions and national legal structures. In Nepal, the advocacy of the Center for Reproductive Rights intentionally excluded a right to life in the constitution, and in Kenya women’s legal organizations were largely responsible for the inclusion of a broad abortion exception in its new constitution.