When, in 2012, somebody shot at Mónica Roa through the toughened-glass windows of her office in Bogota, Colombia, she escaped with glass in her hair and a story she’s keen to avoid. “There’s been so much written about the shooting”, says the Colombian human rights attorney. “It’s part of the story but it’s not all of the story, and I’m much happier with the rest of it.” 7 years earlier she had filed a constitutional lawsuit that led to the liberalisation of Colombia’s complete ban on abortion. The ruling, which introduced exceptions to allow abortion for health risks, cases of rape, and fatal fetal malformations, angered factions of the country’s religious right. Heated debate boiled over into death threats and eventually the attempt on Roa’s life.
Roa now lives in Madrid, Spain, where she works as Vice President of Strategy and External Relations at Women’s Link Worldwide, a non-governmental organisation that fights for gender equality by working with courts to implement international human rights standards. Strategic litigation on reproductive health issues is Roa’s forte. In 2003, after finishing a master’s in public service law from New York University, she joined up with Women’s Link Worldwide to explore the role judges and courts have in promoting reproductive and women’s rights around the world. “I found some really bad examples of judges making really bad decisions for women”, she says. “When I arrived in the world of feminism the previous generation had already done the work—they had enacted international covenants and constitutions so that the rights of women would be explicitly protected. But what is the point of achieving all these victories if the people that are intermediaries between the law and reality still interpret it through their sexist bias?”
Her first case after finishing the project was an obvious choice. Colombia, where she grew up with her mother and sister, had a deeply entrenched opposition to abortion— six attempts over the previous 30 years to challenge the illegality of abortion had been thwarted by the country’s powerful Catholic lobby. Yet, Roa says, back-street abortions were a leading cause of maternal death in the country. Other women were denied treatments such as chemotherapy until they had given birth, by which time it might have been too late. By violating a woman’s right to life and health, she had argued, Colombia was breaking not only its international human rights obligations but its own constitution. “We wanted to respect people’s rights to follow any religion they want but that shouldn’t mean others have to sacrifice their health or their life because of it”, she says. “Our strategy was to take as read the fact that state and church should be separated because according to constitution they are. We weren’t asking the church to change its stance on abortion, we were asking the constitutional court to say it’s unconstitutional to completely ban abortion. And thankfully they did.”
It’s Roa’s logical and determined outlook that so impresses Viviana Waisman, founder, CEO, and President of Women’s Link. “Mónica’s contribution to Women’s Link is very much like her contribution to women’s rights”, she says. “She has this very strategic and visionary way of thinking about how to use law to create a debate about what a more just society needs to look like. She’s really shaped the way we work with law to contribute to promoting and strengthening social movements.”
Social engagement is an important aspect of Roa’s work. In 2009, she brought a second case before Colombia’s Constitutional Court, this time against a powerful anti-abortion judicial official who was spreading inaccurate information about misoprostol to prevent its inclusion in the country’s mandatory health plan. “Because of the stigma, finding a victim—a single case of a woman whose rights had been grossly violated— was difficult”, Roa explains, “so we got more than 1200 women of reproductive age to come together and file a lawsuit. All women of reproductive age have a right to reliable and correct information, so with him misinforming us we were all victims of a violation of this right. We won and he had 72 hours to retract. He wasn’t very happy.” Victory was made all the sweeter for Roa by seeing the response from so many Colombian women. “To have so many women taking matters into their own hands and becoming plaintiffs themselves, it meant they owned the process. They involved their families, their friends, then when we won we had a very empowered group of women across the country.”
Such popular action is important, Roa says, because it highlights the continuum of women’s reproductive lives: the same women who at some point have an abortion are the same ones who give birth to children or who might later have an abortion to help support their existing children. “There seems to be so much opposition to certain issues and so much at least lip service to other issues like prenatal life and child welfare”, she says. “We’re trying to connect the dots between issues—to protect one right you have to protect all of them.” Roa is keen to urge doctors to join the fight. “We are winning the legal battles but losing the symbolic one— the idea that women should have the right to control their own reproductive life. If we don’t transcend the court room walls we’re never going to win the war.”