Nearly a year into the pandemic, a clear victim has been hard-won advances for women’s rights worldwide. Zeynep Meydanoglu sat down with Viviana Waisman, human rights defender and Ashoka Fellow, to understand what can be done about it and what’s next for the gender justice movement.

Zeynep Meydanoglu: How is the Covid pandemic affecting women’s rights?

Viviana Waisman: Covid is a huge concern for women’s rights groups right now, including ours – Women’s Link Worldwide. This pandemic puts at risk many of the gains to date and puts those that were already facing serious human right violations, in even more perilous situations. With our partners we are looking at how government actions – like the lockdowns – are creating increased obstacles to women’s sexual reproductive health and rights.

We’re also looking at issues of human mobility. The closing of borders and restrictions on movement have the danger of increasing things like trafficking, and challenges at detainment centers and refugee camps. Mobility restrictions have also made access to abortion difficult in all contexts – whatever the laws are – and it has been used by very right-wing, authoritarian governments like Poland’s and certain states in the United States to restrict abortion even more.

Then there are issues of violence. The alarming increase of intrafamily violence, women caught with their abusers in the home during the lockdowns, is the one issue everyone has been keenly aware of.

Meydanoglu: What about access to justice?

Waisman: Yes. That is one of our areas of specialization. How do we make sure that family tribunals, restraining orders or other types of emergency measures are still functioning during Covid time? These are essential mechanisms to protect women’s rights and we’re working to make sure courts continue to prioritize access to them.

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Another example is the work we are doing with allies in Kenya using the Right to Information. We have filed a petition demanding access to information in relation to Covid, to make it clear what is and is not allowed. In Kenya, there has been so much police violence relating to curfews that the fear of going out – even for pregnant women who need to get to the hospital – has caused an increase in maternal mortality.

Meydanoglu: Have your priorities changed because of Covid?

Waisman: Our core strategies haven’t changed but Covid has really strengthened our idea that partnerships with national level organizations is key to increasing mission impact. Together, we figure out what legal actions can create a platform for continued change, while the grassroots organizations continue to provide essential services to women.

I am really concerned that Covid might disappear an important part of civil society, including smaller women’s grassroots organizations, frontline defenders, health service providers. How do we make sure that there remains a strong, locally-led women’s rights movement post-Covid? We’re facing perhaps the biggest danger of setback to women’s rights, certainly in my lifetime. But that danger at the same time creates a huge opportunity to put women’s rights front and center.

Meydanoglu: What are some of these opportunities?

Waisman: We started to work on an important case involving telemedicine to access information about safe medical abortions. It is a huge area of opportunity to increase women’s access to reproductive health and rights, especially in a period of lockdown when clinics are closed or overwhelmed with Covid patients. Access to information about medical abortion is key. It is also fundamental that abortion be considered an essential medical service during any crisis situation.

I’m also very excited about reframing old issues in new ways. For example, with over 200 other organizations in Colombia, we filed a case to take abortion out of the Criminal Code. There’s no reason for abortion to be in the Criminal Code. It’s a health issue, so what’s the need to criminalize it? If we are successful, it will only be the second country in the world where that’s the case. In my view this is the future in terms of reproductive rights.

That said we are watching with much concern how very right-wing, anti-rights forces are in a coordinated fashion, attacking women’s rights. Typically, this puts us in a defensive position, trying to protect the advancements already made. But we are looking at the proactive things we can do as well. And this brings me to another example in Colombia, where we are looking at the use of the Right to Information to dispel some of the myths and misinformation that these groups continuously spread. This could be a gamechanger.

Meydanoglu: What keeps you optimistic about the future?

Waisman: Pre-Covid, the emergence of a strong wave of next generation women’s rights activists globally was the most exciting thing. We need to make sure that Covid doesn’t crush this wave. This is true for all the issues. The next generation is where the strength is. Just look at the environmental movement!

Meydanoglu: What are young feminists saying that is different?

Waisman: They’ve broken the collective silence. Around the time that the #metoo movement went global – even with its problems of inadequate representation – it brought forth the message that despite all the advances, women and girls continue to experience violence and discrimination at every level in their lives. There was a collective breaking of the silence from young women and girls.

They are also breaking the silence on the fact that all women and girls don’t face the same type of discrimination. You have to look at how discrimination interacts with race, ethnicity, age, gender identity, all these different things. This is what’s different about the young voices emerging and why they are so important.

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Viviana Waisman is the President and CEO of Women’s Link Worldwide, which she founded in 2001 in response to what she perceived as a glaring need to advance women’s rights in national courts by applying international and regional human rights standards. She is an expert on women’s rights and international human rights law. Viviana has led the litigation strategy in human rights cases before national, regional and international bodies. Viviana became an Ashoka Fellow in 2016.

Zeynep Meydanoglu is the Country Co-Director of Ashoka Turkey, and the field leader of Next Now/Gender. Prior to Ashoka, Zeynep led civil society strengthening initiatives and contributed to Turkey’s women’s movement in organizations like TUSEV, KAMER and Purple Roof Foundation. 

Next Now: Ashoka’s Next Now highlights innovations in areas ripe for transformation, including Tech & Humanity, Aging and Longevity, Gender, and Planet & Climate. This series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders creating an equal world for people of all genders. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of the series.

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