Viviana Waisman
Ashoka Fellow since 2016   |   Spain

Viviana Waisman

Women's Link Worldwide
Viviana uses the power of law to define and accelerate the rights of women and girls. Her strategy goes beyond the courtroom and uses strategic litigation to strengthen the human rights…
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This description of Viviana Waisman's work was prepared when Viviana Waisman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.


Viviana uses the power of law to define and accelerate the rights of women and girls. Her strategy goes beyond the courtroom and uses strategic litigation to strengthen the human rights infrastructure, create public debate, and contribute to social mobilization to guarantee women’s and girls’ rights, improve sexual and reproductive rights, and reduce discrimination, violence and, human trafficking.

The New Idea

The work carried out by Viviana and her organization Women’s Link Worldwide (WLW) is designed to create genuine impact in women’s rights through strategic litigation to achieve social change. Viviana believes that for sustainable transformation it is necessary to go beyond lobbying for law or policy change, and hold courts and legal actors accountable for their interpretation and implementation of laws, and reduce the widespread gender bias that exists in courtrooms everywhere.
In addition, many of these strategic cases, with or without a legal victory, serve to shift public debate and mobilize communities, even countries, to increase demand to promote and protect the rights of women and girls.
Since 2001 Viviana has been giving a voice to women and girls in the human rights arena, using legal, communications and mobilization strategies to advance the rights of women and girls in three thematic intersecting areas: sexual and reproductive rights, violence, and discrimination, always with a focus on women and girls in marginalized communities – those who are not only discriminated against because of their gender but also because of poverty, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, migrant status and more.
WLW, implements rigorous selection criteria to identify cases all over the world that they know will have the most impact on legal precedent, but also impact on high profile social issues affecting women. They identify rights violations and works with judges and legal actors to understand that they have a responsibility to work to eradicate gender bias in the interpretation and implementation of the law.
Through the power of law, WLW focuses on three main lines of work: to build jurisprudence (through the selection and leading of strategic legal cases), to build capacities (by creating networks and providing knowledge and support to actors in the legal field), and to build social conditions (uses the strategic cases to generate debate and social movement).

The Problem

Despite great strides made by the international women’s rights movement over many years, inequality between men and women is still a serious social issue. Women and girls around the world are still married as children or trafficked into forced labour and sex slavery. They are refused access to education and some are trapped in conflicts where rape is perpetrated as a weapon of war.
Negative stereotypes hinder women’s ability to fulfil their potential by limiting choices and opportunities. They are at the root of overt and covert, direct and indirect, and recurrent gender discrimination, which adversely affects the de jure and de facto equality that should be guaranteed to women.
The effect of this on the mental and physical integrity of women is to deprive them of equal knowledge, exercise and enjoyment of rights and fundamental freedoms (according to the CEDAW Committee recommendation). Examples include gender pay gap, occupational segregation, denial of promotions to leadership, glass ceiling in different professions, increased casualization of women workers and feminization of poverty, trafficking, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honour killings, violence against women in domestic spheres, work place and public spaces, and lower levels of equation and work opportunities
Although the UN General Assembly presented a framework for the Elimination of Violence against women in 1993, over twenty years later more than 1 out of 3 women is a victim of violence and 1 out of 10 suffers from sexual violence. Even now, more than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime.
In today’s world, human trafficking is the fastest growing global crime; people trafficking is the fastest growing means by which people are enslaved, the fastest growing international crime, and one of the largest sources of income for organized crime according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Due to the nature of trafficking, reliable statistics are difficult to find, but it is estimated that between 1 and 1.2 million people are victims of human trafficking each year (US State department of trafficking/ Unicef). Approximately 80%are women and girls and up to 50% are minors.
The health and lives of millions of women across the globe are being threatened by government failures to guarantee their sexual and reproductive rights. The twenty first century still sees some countries condoning child marriage and marital rape while others are outlawing abortion, sex outside marriage and same-sex sexual activity.
Many established NGOs work in these women’s rights areas – trafficking, sexual and reproductive rights, violence and discrimination - either to help victims or to give women the tools to become independent, and a few support victims through legal processes, but none work to change the very legislation that allows many of the violent situations to occur and recur.
In addition, the inherent prejudice in many justice systems, particularly in developing countries, goes strategically unchallenged. It is accepted as the social norm and this must be challenged through awareness and training.

On-going debate about human rights crimes specifically relating to women and children is limited and social mobilization tends to centre on human rights in general or on very specific female issues such as genital mutilation.

The Strategy

Viviana addresses three main areas in order to achieve a sustainable and long-term change: a judicial system capable of understanding and committed to applying new and adapted laws; a community of legal activists who can give form to the social issues to make them into a legal obligation or legal rights; and awareness of issues, social debate and demands by civil society for changes to be made.
The first area is building jurisprudence: Women’s Link Worldwide examines existing laws to determine how the rights framework can be leveraged to create change. Their expertise in comparative law enables them to monitor and develop legal standards based on the most effective arguments and strategies available worldwide.
Viviana works to build upon and amplify human rights standards. She successfully litigates strategic cases for the rights of women and girls by utilizing international human rights principles in national contexts. She then strengthens the resulting legal precedents, leveraging them in other national, regional and international bodies.
WLW has litigated more than 20 pioneering cases, and has been called on as experts in 15 cases. The organization has also presented and executed more than 40 amicus in cases all over the world, exposing judges to new and innovative arguments, mobilizing legal experts and activists to submit hundreds of amicus to the courts. In some of these cases, it was the first time that the court even accepted amicus curiae, as a result of their advocacy.

One of Viviana’s team’s recent successes was changing the law in Colombia so that rape carried out during conflicts was redefined as a war crime and not just as “collateral damage”. This change allows perpetrators to be tried and sentenced to much more severe punishments and has been successfully applied in other cases.
WLW has also succeeded in changing legislation in Spain where victims of trafficking were automatically deported. Their test litigation led to the development of a protocol to grant trafficking victims a minimum period of time to recover and evaluate their legal options. This also stops the process of deportation, allowing women and girls to stay at a safe distance from their traffickers and access basic services.
To select the most strategic cases in order to have a greater social impact, WLW has conducted investigations on migrant women, trafficking, conditions of foreign detainment centers and rights violations in Spain, Morocco, and Colombia. To date, they have published six reports each focusing on issues, populations, and rights violations that were unknown prior to their investigation. Currently they are expanding this research to the regional level (Europe: Spain, France, Germany and Denmark; LAC: Colombia, Peru, Paraguay and Mexico).

WLW has published innovative arguments, case laws, analysis and strategies that are used and cited by lawyers, judges and academics around the world. Their publications look at how to use the law to address human rights issues such as abortion and gender, race and discrimination based on migration status as obstacles to accessing courts.

WLW are a resource to UN bodies like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For example, the administrative cases they presented to UNHCR served to adapt policies so that the rights of trafficking victims trapped in Morocco were respected.

The second area is building capacity in the judicial system: Viviana routinely works with judges, legal professionals, and civil society organizations to apply favorable standards and successful strategies to build knowledge of positive case law benefitting women and girls.

WLW establishes partnerships, offers technical assistance, and mentors other legal professionals. They work with them to articulate social problems within a human rights framework, bring these cases to the courts, and conduct outreach and advocacy, allowing them to share their knowledge base and escalate their impact in other countries.
Viviana also designs training sessions, facilitates exchanges and creates teaching tools and materials to promote a judicial dialogue on how the law can be used to overcome gender discrimination and ensure justice for all. In short, she works to engage a judiciary committed to human rights.
WLW have given thousands of workshops for civil society organizations, judges, prosecutors, attorneys, and communications experts on a wide range of issues such as international human rights law, strategic litigation, gender jurisprudence, and how to address many human rights issues. Workshops have taken place around the world, including: Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Morocco, Guatemala, South Africa, Thailand, and Bolivia.
They have led seven mentoring programs (5 in Latin America and 2 in Africa), working with attorneys to understand and design strategic litigation and other advocacy to advance women’s rights. One attorney from Peru that participated in a mentoring designed an innovative legal strategy that ultimately mobilized more than 10,000 youth as plaintiffs demanding their rights. In partnership with WLW and other organizations, she took this case to the Peruvian Constitutional Court and won a historic decision that recognized the sexual and reproductive rights of young people.
Furthermore, more than 300 interns have worked in their offices in Bogota and Madrid. This network of young attorneys have gone on to be leaders in their field: working in the chambers of the Constitutional Court in Colombia, as staff attorney at the Inter American Court of Human Rights, with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and more.
WLW also builds expertise judiciary through manuals (for courts in Argentina, Guatemala, Mexico, and Latin America more broadly), judicial trainings and memorandums. One such memo led to the first-ever inclusion of a gender perspective in a case at the Inter American Court on Human Rights, regarding stolen babies during dictatorships.
WLW has created the “Gender and Justice Observatory”, an accessible free on-line platform for the legal community to share their knowledge and experience. The Gender & Justice Observatory includes both a detailed section on Legal Strategies for Women’s Rights and an extensive database of over 400 cases that can be consulted by legal professionals around the world and can serve as the basis for further jurisprudence.
WLW promotes an enabling environment for social change through litigation by fostering ongoing public debate on their areas of concern and engages diverse constituencies, from the media, to funders, civil society leaders, medical experts and other professionals in relevant fields, and governmental bodies. These debates allow Viviana and her team to work on the third area, building the right conditions: working to build a favorable environment facilitates the implementation of good decisions, and improves conditions to advance women’s rights, regardless of whether there is a legal victory.
To do so she engages communications and media outreach to shape public discourse and opinion, cultivation of spokespeople and leaders and builds with civil society organizations to conduct advocacy.

They work with the women they represent to make sure that their stories are told with dignity and empower them to become movement leaders. In 2012, they mobilized 1,208 women in Colombia to demand that public officials provide accurate, complete and reliable information about sexual and reproductive rights. The Constitutional Court heard their complaint and decided in their favor. The voices of these women were so strong that officials backed down and changes occurred overnight.
Another example is when Spain’s justice system failed to their client Angela. She had fled a violent partner and was seeking protection for herself and her young daughter, Andrea. Instead of listening to Angela, the authorities questioned her. They negligently granted her violent ex-partner unsupervised visitation with Andrea. Tragically, during one of these visits, six-year-old Andrea was murdered at the hands of her father, just before he killed himself.
WLW took the case to the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and won. This victory has not remained within the walls of the courtroom. Since the decision, the public debate on women’s rights in Spain has shifted, recognizing how gender stereotypes block women from accessing justice. There is now a very public conversation about violence against women that also takes into account the violence that children often face. With WLW’s training and support, Angela has become an outspoken and publicly recognized advocate for women who are victims of domestic violence and their children, calling on Spanish authorities to respect their rights and end discriminatory practices.
One of the key elements in this part of her strategy is the creation of The Gender and Justice Annual Awards. The Awards were created to demonstrate that the comments made by judges and the courts have a strong influence on people’s sense of justice and the daily life, whatever their political system or religious traditions and beliefs.
WLW sees the courts as an instrument in which civil society initiates a dialogue with judicial authorities on how rights should be interpreted, what their impact is on people's day-to-day life and the ways in which they delimit legislative and executive activity. It is from this perspective that these Awards were born.
The Awards are becoming the international seal of quality for gender jurisprudence, and empower individuals to raise awareness about the impact of judicial decisions in limiting or promoting women’s rights. In 2016 alone, over 70 cases have been nominated from over 30 different countries and more than 262.000 votes have been casted.
WLW is funded by private donations and has a team of over 20 people in offices in Madrid and Colombia. On a global level, Viviana works with local organizations to replicate the work that she and the core team carries out. She is constantly forging alliances to share knowledge, offer training and increase her mentoring network. She is currently looking to expand her impact with alliances in South East Africa.
Viviana’s work is extensive and the present European refugee crisis is another area where she and her organization are working to make an impact. They have a recently launched project to take on strategic litigation to set due diligence obligations of the European Union and its institutions to respect and protect the rights of refugees. She aims to bring a global spotlight to the rights violations and EU obligations and turn litigation into an advocacy platform for diverse movements, fields and organizations to come together and demand justice for refugees with a special focus on women and girls.

The Person

Viviana defines herself as a “cause person”. Her social vocation is part of her DNA and since childhood she knew that she would work in a sector related to social issues.
The idea of discrimination became present in her life through the stories she heard from her grandmother telling how as a young child in the 1900s she had been forced to leave school while her brothers, who were much less interested in a formal education, were allowed to stay. Although they lived in the coast, her mother never learned to swim because only the men in the family were taught. Viviana began to question why the women in her family and her surroundings were treated differently.
Her grandparents were Eastern European immigrants who settled in Argentina. Her parents were forced to leave Argentina in the coup d’état and Viviana was born in New York. When she was three they returned to Buenos Aires only to flee again three years later after yet another period of instability and return to New York. Viviana found herself at an American summer camp, unable to speak English and feeling totally isolated. This “refugee” experience has had an acute impact on her life, her work and her sense of self.
In her late teens, after visiting Mexico on vacation, she worked extensively with socially deprived families in extreme poverty before starting her political science degree at Berkely. During her degree, she spent an exchange year in Madrid working with vulnerable, young women and then took a class in “Women and Political Science”. From those two experiences her vocation took shape, and she decided to specialize in law finishing her degree in 1995.
Prior to founding Women’s Link Worldwide in 2001, Viviana worked as a consultant for the United Nations Population Fund in New York, as an attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York and as an associate at the law firm Gray, Cary, Ware and Friendenrich in California (USA).
She founded WLW in response to what she felt was a glaring need to advance women’s rights in national courts by creating and disseminating mechanisms to apply human rights standards and foster cross regional exchanges and has expanded her work to Latin America, Europe and East Africa.
From 2011 to 2015, Viviana was a member of the European Union’s Group of Experts on Trafficking in Human Beings, and she is currently an Official Advisor for the Global Fund for Women.

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