10 groundbreaking cases that have changed women’s lives
Alongside political lobbying and mobilizing social movements, strategic litigation is a tactic that advocates have used to challenge gender discrimination and raise awareness of women’s rights.
Where it is successful, strategic litigation can have groundbreaking results. These 10 cases have increased women’s access to justice in countries all over the world.
Brazil: Maria Da Penha drives change
Fernandes v Brazil
In May 1983, Maria da Penha Fernandes, was shot by her husband. Just two weeks after she returned from the hospital, her husband attempted to electrocute her.
The case languished in the criminal justice system for two decades and when Maria’s husband was finally convicted, he served just two years in prison. Maria took her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and as a result, in 2006, the Government of Brazil enacted the Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence. Maria Da Penha continues to campaign for thorough implementation of the law.
Austria: Governments must implement laws on domestic violence
Şahide Goekce (deceased) v Austria and Fatma Yildirim (deceased) v Austria
Şahide Goekce and Fatma Yildirim were both murdered by their husbands following years of brutal abuse. Despite reporting the violence to the police and obtaining protection orders, the Austrian authorities repeatedly failed to ensure the women’s safety.
The 2007 decision of the CEDAW Committee under the Optional Protocol was of global significance because it was found that Austria had failed to implement the law and therefore failed in their duty to provide ‘due diligence.’
Botswana: Women have equal citizenship rights
The Attorney General of The Republic of Botswana v Unity Dow
Despite being a citizen born and raised in Botswana, the law stated that because Unity Dow had married a foreigner, their two children required residence permits and were denied their rights as citizens.
In challenging the Government, Unity Dow said: “the time that women were treated as chattels or were there to obey the whims and wishes of males is long past”. The landmark 2001 case confirmed that the guarantee of equality under the constitution applied to citizenship rights.
Colombia: Abortion must be available in certain circumstances
Judgment of the Constitutional Court of Colombia
Women’s Link Worldwide, a women’s legal NGO, took this case on behalf of Martha Solay, who was two months pregnant when she was diagnosed with cancer. Colombia’s laws prohibited doctors from performing an abortion to enable her to receive life-saving chemotherapy. The Court held that the ban violated women’s fundamental rights and affirmed that abortion must be accessible in certain cases.
India: The right to work free from sexual harassment
Vishaka v State of Rajasthan
Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped by local men while doing her job as a social worker in a village in Rajasthan. She took the case to the Supreme Court in 1997, where it was decided that the Government had an obligation to provide legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace.
The case has also inspired a similar case in Bangladesh and law reform in Pakistan, so that today, almost 500 million working women in these three countries alone can carry out their work free from harassment and abuse.
Nepal: When a husband rapes his wife, it is a crime
Meera Dhungana on behalf of FWLD v HMG
In Nepal, until 2002, the law exempted men from being prosecuted for the rape of their wives. A case was brought by the Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD) and the Supreme Court ordered Parliament to amend the rape law.
This and other similar cases have signaled sweeping changes in the assumption that a wife implicitly consents to all sexual activity. To date at least 52 States now have explicitly outlawed marital rape in their criminal codes.
Canada: Indigenous women’s rights must be protected
Lovelace v Canada
Sandra Lovelace, an Aboriginal Maliseet woman, wanted to return to live on her reservation after her divorce. However, she had been stripped of her rights because she had married a non-Aboriginal.
In this groundbreaking 1981 decision, the United Nations Human Rights Committee decided that the Canadian Indian Act amounted to a violation of Canada’s human rights obligations, and interfered with Sandra’s cultural rights. The Government amended the law, to eliminate gender discrimination in determining ‘Indian status’.
South Africa: Customary laws must uphold gender equality
Bhe v Khayelitsha Magistrate
When Nonkuleleko and Anelisa Bhe’s father died, under customary law their house became the property of their grandfather. The Constitutional Court of South Africa declared in 2004 that the rule of primogeniture and the customary law was unconstitutional, because it violated women’s rights to equality and dignity.
Mexico: Reparations should be transformative
Gonzalez and others (“Cotton Field”) v Mexico
Hundreds of women have been sexually assaulted, tortured and murdered in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico over the past 16 years. In November 2001, eight bodies were discovered in a cotton field.
In 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights established that these cases were part of a pattern of systematic violence based on gender, age and social class.
The Court called upon the Government to provide a range of reparation measures, ‘oriented to identify and eliminate the structural factors of discrimination’ to transform the underlying gender inequalities that gave rise to the violence.
An end to impunity for sexual violence in conflict
Prosecutor v Tadic, Prosecutor v Furundžija, and Prosecutor v Kunarac, Kovac & Vukovic. (Kunarac); and Prosecutor v Akayesu
The statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) were the first to establish rape as a crime against humanity.
The Akayesu case in the ICTR produced the first convictions on charges of rape and sexual violence in the Tribunals, confirming that rape can constitute torture and an act of genocide.
The most significant legacy of these cases was their influence on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first such court with the authority to punish crimes in armed conflicts.