“Whatever you choose to do, leave tracks. That means don’t do it just for yourself. You will want to leave the world a little better for your having lived.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
The legal arena has always been one of the most crucial battlegrounds in the fight to end violence against women (VAW). Unsurprisingly, the laws and legal systems in many countries today are still overwhelmingly designed to enforce, enable, and perpetuate sexism, misogyny, and VAW. This can be seen in domestic violence cases where male abusers use litigation abuse to punish their victims who leave them. The most recent example of such post-separation abuse is the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard case which exposed the misogyny and sexism embedded in the legal process. This can also be seen in a steady stream of rape cases where rapists get off with a slap on the wrist because the judge or jury blames the victim, the most infamous recent example of which is the Brock Turner case, or when it takes scores of survivors coming forward to testify before the rapist is convicted, such as the Bill Cosby case.
Significantly, milestones in efforts to end VAW, good or bad, are often signposted by unprecedented court rulings and breakthrough government legislation that directly address gender-based violence. One of the most recent examples is the contrast between the US Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade in the US which overturned the constitutional right to abortion in the country and India’s Supreme Court’s landmark ruling which formally acknowledges that rape includes marital rape and extends abortion rights to 24 weeks. From revenge porn to female genital mutilation, it is clear that laws that make gender-based violence a crime are a vital tool for combatting VAW.
In this article, we honour 16 lawyers (some of whom are now influential judges) from across 16 countries and 6 continents who have taken courageous action to fight against VAW both inside and outside the courtroom, even when the odds are against them. From using the law to take on workplace harassment cases involving corporate goliaths, to helping coordinate the evacuation of women at risk of femicide, to leading women’s organisations that specialise in taking on VAW cases, the lawyers and judges in this list have used their legal knowledge, acumen, and skills to ensure that victims and survivors get justice and safety. To that end, we ask that you share this list with your local lawyers, judges, and communities as part of galvanising them to take action to end VAW.
It’s time to stop violence against women. Together.
Introduction by Regina Yau. Written by Anushia Kandasivam, Gabrielle Beran, and Regina Yau. Research by Gabrielle Beran, Regina Yau, and Vani Bhardwaj.
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Lawyer Against VAW #1: Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi – Nigeria
Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi is a Nigerian lawyer and civil rights activist who founded the Women Advocates’ Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), a women’s organisation that works to promote women’s human rights and the rule of law with a focus on violence against women and girls and policy advocacy. She has represented victims of gender-based violence and won major cases in the Nigerian courts including Mary Day v. Nigeria (domestic violence) and the Monica Osagie campus sexual harassment case. Speaking at a meeting between WARDC, the Ford Foundation, and the Lagos State Ministry of Women Affairs about the skyrocketing spike of violence against women during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Akiyode-Afolabi said: “Violence against women is a violation of human rights and a major impediment to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women. Such violence harms women, their families and communities socially, politically and economically.”
Lawyer Against VAW #2: Anna Kruszewska – Poland
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, Poland offered places on its planes to Afghan interpreters and employees linked to US or EU missions there during the violent and chaotic final days of the US occupation. However, almost lost in the shuffle were 250 female judges who faced great danger if they remained in their country. Warsaw-based immigration lawyer Anna Kruszewska stepped up to lend assistance to the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) with their efforts to evacuate a group of female judges from Kabul just after the Taliban recaptured the city. In a podcast interview, Kruszewska talked about how a tweet from a female Afghan judge spurred her into action – she found out that the Polish government was organising an evacuation for Polish citizens in Afghanistan and managed to reach officials to make arrangements for excess places on the flights to be used for getting female judges out of Kabul.
Lawyer Against VAW #3: Ayesha A. Malik – Pakistan
Justice Malik became the first female Supreme Court Judge in Pakistan’s history when she was sworn in in January 2022. She drew widespread attention with her 2021 ruling in the case of Sadaf Azia vs The Federation that outlawed invasive examinations as evidence in rape cases in Pakistan. She started the Punjab Women Judges Conference (2016), which supported the introduction of specific gender-based violence courts and a gender equality policy for the Lahore High Court. She has championed many other changes to make courts more responsive to victims, including court waiting rooms for women and children, and judicial training on gender sensitivity. In an interview with UNODC she said, “If you keep narrating the same thing repeatedly, e.g., her clothes weren’t appropriate, why was she out late at night, etc.? You’re just perpetuating the stereotypes. We need to respect the litigant and address them with respect in our judgements.”
Lawyer Against VAW #4: Azza Soliman – Egypt
Azza Soliman co-founded the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), which provides legal support to Egyptian women and has special consultative status at the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Soliman has been working on women’s rights issues for more than 25 years and, through CEWLA, combats violence against women, provides access to justice for women, and combats corruption in the legal system by engaging men in decision-making processes. She has spearheaded national campaigns on equality and been a consultant to Arab governments on gender equality. Though her work with CEWLA, she has been met with resistance from the patriarchal and authoritative Egyptian government and society. Soliman believes that “as women human rights defenders, we defy this authority, taboos, and patriarchal hierarchy” and must continue to “challenge both the state and the family in their authoritarian norms and patriarchal violence.”
Lawyer Against VAW #5: Basira Qazizada – Afghanistan
Currently a visiting scholar at Berkeley Law’s Human Rights Center in the US, Basira Qazizada was an established judge at the Supreme Court of Afghanistan’s Kabul Primary Court before she had to flee her country when the Taliban took the city in August 2021. Qazizada worked on issues of human rights, women empowerment, inheritance rights and property law, conducted research on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and developed resources for Afghan women to better understand their rights. Qazizada was one of the group of women judges evacuated to Poland. Now safely in the US, she is working on a project called Women Judges and Their Effects on Women’s Rights and Freedom in Afghanistan.
Lawyer Against VAW #6: Bonita Meyersfeld – South Africa
Professor Bonita Meyersfeld is one of the founders and board chairpersons of South African NGO Lawyers Against Abuse (LvA), and the former director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. LvA provides free legal advice alongside integrated psychosocial support. As well as representing victims of gender-based violence in court, she has published extensively on the laws regarding intimate violence, examining rape justice, and combatting violence against women, forced marriage and domestic violence in international law. She is also part of the Global Working Group of the Every Woman Treaty initiative which calls for a treaty to end violence against women: “..when a politician says “we commit to ending domestic violence” and does not fund places of safety that respond to the different circumstances of different women, then their verbosity […] fails women.”
Lawyer Against VAW #7: Busayapa Srisompong – Thailand
Busayapa Srisompong is a Thai lawyer, domestic violence survivor, and founder of NGO SHero which was started with a mission to denormalise gender-based violence (GBV) in Thailand, and now also in the Philippines and Vietnam. “Domestic violence has been normalised and justified for so long that even the few women who dare to speak up and go to the police are discouraged from filing a report,” she says. SHero offers safe spaces, pro bono legal aid, policy advocacy, and survivor empowerment. Since 2016, SHero has supported victims in over 350 cases of gender-based violence. Busayapa Srisompong is outspoken on issues of domestic violence, and is critical of the lack of support for victims within the Thai legal system.
Lawyer Against VAW #8: Caroline Lagat – Kenya
Caroline Lagat is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and Programme Officer at Equality Now, where she leads their work on ending harmful practices against girls, specifically female genital mutilation (FGM). She was part of the legal team who filed a case in the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice against Mali’s failure to prohibit FGM. She speaks and writes frequently about FGM laws and women’s equality, and feels that ”advocacy for gender equality is a way of life.”
Lawyer Against VAW #9: Édgar Pérez – Guatemala
Édgar Pérez is an internationally renowned Guatemalan litigator and head of law firm, Bufete de Derechos Humanos (the Human Rights Law Firm), who is currently trying to seek justice in the challenging case of 41 girls who died by asphyxiation and burns in a fire in a state-run children’s home in 2017. The victims had previously reported sexual violence and were locked in a small room as punishment. “[The home] should have been protecting these children, but started to take advantage of their vulnerability,” he says. He has previously represented victims of genocide and other human rights atrocities, mostly pro bono, relying on international support.
Lawyer Against VAW #10: Harriet Wistrich – United Kingdom
Harriet Wistrich has been tackling VAW in Britain since the 1990s. She founded the Centre for Women’s Justice, which aims to change the structural disadvantage women and girls face across the criminal justice system. Wistrich represents survivors of rape and domestic violence in court, including women who have killed abusive partners. She has also helped clients bring to court complaints about police mishandling of cases and failure to address police-perpetrated domestic abuse. Last year, in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer and subsequent women’s protests against male violence, Wistrich called for “the urgent and effective implementation of the laws that already exist” to protect women and “tackle the spectacular failings not only in policing but across the criminal justice system” in Britain.
Lawyer Against VAW #11: İpek Bozkurt – Turkey
İpek Bozkurt is an accomplished Turkish commercial lawyer who also focusses on violence against women and femicide cases. She is the Advocacy Coordinator of We Will Stop Femicides Platform, a feminist NGO which campaigns to end gender-based violence and murder in Turkey. Bozkurt’s tireless work came to light after she was the subject of a documentary about femicide in Turkey, Dying to Divorce and We Will Stop Femicides’ high-profile court cases, including a 2022 case attempting to shut the group down. In the film she says “violence is not about lower education and financial deprivation or anything, it’s actually about a woman’s decision and men trying to suppress and prevent that decision-making process.”
Lawyer Against VAW #12: Karuna Nundy – India
Karuna Nundy has been working for gender justice in India for many years and has emerged as a leading voice for gender justice and freedom of speech, contributing to the reform of anti-rape laws and fighting cases against sexual harassment in the workplace. Her work accelerated after the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape case when she played a significant role in drafting India’s anti-rape bill, which came into force in 2013. In 2017, Nundy wrote an open letter to all Indian women explaining their protections according to the country’s constitution, asking them to “exercise ethical power” and “change the world a little bit for the better.” Nundy is working on changing the law to make marital rape a crime in India, working with non-profits, and representing the All India Democratic Women’s Association and individual survivors on marital rape in court.
Lawyer Against VAW #13: Larysa Denysenko – Ukraine
Larysa Denysenko is a Ukrainian lawyer, journalist, human rights activist, and co-founder of the Association of Women’s Layers of Ukraine (JurFem). Denysenko expanded her work during the current war to represent the interests of people who have survived conflict-related sexual violence allegedly perpetrated by the Russian military in Ukraine. Denysenko is a tireless advocate for women who have suffered conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and for women’s meaningful participation in negotiation processes and sustainable efforts to end wars. In a statement for UNWomen, Denysenko said that “sexual violence is a tactic of intimidation, torture and humiliation”, that it is “crucial for the media, public officials and activists to adhere to the standards of gender-sensitive reporting, so as not to cause any additional harm to those who’ve suffered CRSV,” and that “It is very important that we preserve our successes in the gender equality achieved as of today.”
Lawyer Against VAW #14: Lee Eun-eui – South Korea
In 2008, against all odds, Lee Eun-eui won a civil lawsuit against Samsung, a hugely powerful South Korean tech company, after being sexually harassed at work – quite a feat in South Korea where women have struggled to seek justice for sexual violence or have their testimonies treated as direct evidence. Speaking about her case, Lee said, “I did nothing wrong […] So I decided to fight.” Since retraining as a lawyer, Lee has been providing free legal help to victims of sexual violence and has become a strong voice in Korea’s #MeToo campaign. She has been an outspoken critic of the results in sexual violence cases made by majority-male prosecutors and judges.
Lawyer Against VAW #15: Pamela Cross – Canada
Feminist lawyer Pamela Cross is a well-known and respected expert on VAW and the law in her native Canada. Cross works with women’s organisations in Ontario and is the legal director of Luke’s Place Support and Resource Centre, a non-profit devoted to improving the safety and experience of women and their children in the family law process in Canada after they have fled an abusive relationship. Cross has been called as an expert witness in inquests into femicides and inquiries into intimate partner violence. Cross is an advocate for sustainable funding for women’s shelters across Canada and provides domestic violence awareness training for legal aid staff, community clinics, and lawyers in Ontario.
Lawyer Against VAW #16: Pamela Price – United States of America
Despite a rocky childhood (Price bounced around foster care and was thrown in jail as a teenager after organising student demonstrations that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr), Price eventually became a lawyer to seek justice for abused women and now uses the criminal legal system to fight gendered oppression, sometimes controversially. In the 1970s, Price advocated for self-defence rights for battered women; she herself was prosecuted for trying to protect herself and her child from her abuser. In college, she became the public face of Title IX (the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools) and as a lawyer went on to fight and win groundbreaking sexual harassment cases in the ‘90s and 2000s. Price was recently elected as district attorney of Alameda County in California.
- Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi – From WARDC Nigeria
- Anna Kruszewska – From “Polish lawyer helps rescue female judges from Kabul”, Polskieradio.pl (Hasik Rheims & Partners)
- Ayesha A. Malik – From “International Women’s Day 2022: In conversation with Mrs Justice Ayesha A. Malik” (Courts & Tribunals UK)
- Azza Soliman – From Wikimedia (Nada Nashat, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
- Basira Qazizada – From “Afghan judge who fled to Berkeley doesn’t know where she’ll go if her visa expires” (Berkeleyside)
- Bonita Meyersfeld – From Lawyers Against Abuse
- Busayapa Srisompong – From “ From Where I Stand: From Survivor of Violence to Women’s Rights Advocate” (UN Women /Maximillian Morch)
- Caroline Lagat – From Equality Now
- Édgar Pérez – From “Impunity’s Eclipse” (International Center for Transitional Justice/Daniele Volpe)
- Harriet Wistrich – From Centre for Women’s Justice.
- Ipek Bozkurt – From Bozkurt Çobanoğlu Law Firm
- Karuna Nundy – From Wikimedia (DiplomatTesterMan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
- Larysa Denysenko – From “Russian occupiers are using psychological terror against us and we will feel those consequences — Larysa Denysenko” (Larysa Denysenko/hromadske.radio)
- Lee Eun-eui – “Once harassed herself, South Korean lawyers fights for #MeToo victims” (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)
- Pamela Cross – From www.pamelacross.ca (Pamela Cross)
- Pamela Price – From www.pamelaprice4da.com