Mónica Roa was in a meeting when the power went out in the Bogotá office of Women’s Link Worldwide. Someone fired shots through the window and shards of glass fell on her head. Though Mónica and her colleagues were not hurt, it was only the latest in a series of attacks against Women’s Link Worldwide for their efforts to implement the Colombian Constitutional Court’s ruling on abortion.
"It is very scary to stop and think about what’s truly happening to cause people to target me, to shoot at me and at the office, and to accuse me of promoting genocide in a country in which violence is part of the daily life," said Mónica, Director of Programs at Women’s Link Worldwide.
Mónica was a new lawyer when she decided to use the judicial system for social change and start Global Fund grantee, Women’s Link Worldwide. The death threats started afterwards and the State had to provide her with bodyguards. That was seven years ago, and she’s been living with bodyguards ever since. The Bogotá office has been broken into and computers stolen three times and on several occasions, human excrement has been left outside their office.
Why Is Women’s Link Worldwide a Target?
In Latin America, there is a clear offensive against the rights of women, particularly those related to sexuality and reproductive health. Abortion is still illegal in most places, except under very narrow circumstances. Global Fund supports groups like Women’s Link Worldwide because they work to change laws and policies that hold governments accountable.
“People now think of the law as a tool for change rather than a tool of oppression”
In a historic decision this year, the Constitutional Court ruled to protect the right to information of the 1,280 women who, with the help of Women’s Link Worldwide, brought a constitutional challenge, known as a "tutela," against the Inspector General and other government officials. The tutela alleged that these public officials were violating the right to information of these women and girls of reproductive age by producing and disseminating incomplete and distorted information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, in blatant disregard for the verifiable findings of judicial, scientific and legal authorities.
Among such false information was the claim that emergency contraception, or the morning after pill, was an abortive agent, even though scientists from the World Health Organization, amongst others, have made it clear that it is a contraceptive and does not induce abortion. Additionally, the Constitutional Court ruled that because abortion is a right in three specified circumstances, the Department of Health is obliged to take action when institutions fail to provide abortion services. In spite of this, the Inspector General and his deputies denied that abortion was a right and told the Department of Health that they were under no obligation to remove barriers preventing access to abortion.
"As citizens, we have to be able to trust the information provided to us by representatives of the State, and even more so when it comes from the Procuraduría, which is the institution responsible for ensuring the full protection of human rights in Colombia," wrote Mónica Roa in a press release.
While the Constitutional Court’s ruling in favor of Women’s Link Worldwide is a huge accomplishment, Mónica and others experience increased security threats. So much so, that they have to raise money to hire security guards, buy security cameras, and pay for security risk assessments.
"If women’s rights defenders don’t take care of the threats and don’t manage to vindicate their own rights, then we are sending a message to the women we usually defend that there’s no hope to make this a priority," said Mónica.
A Global Inspiration
The Constitutional Court’s ruling has become one of the most important processes to liberalize abortion laws and test the core principles of the Colombian constitution, according to Mónica. Women’s Link Worldwide now uses the lessons learned in other parts of the world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Monica says the activists she meets are learning about her case and questioning how they can do something similar in their countries.
"People now think of the law as a tool for change rather than a tool of oppression," said Mónica. "Most people get recognitions after they are dead. I am able to be proud and witness the impact on my country and in the world."
When Mónica is invited to speak about Women’s Link Worldwide and the importance of human rights law, she sees young people share her same passion. In fact, Women’s Link Worldwide trains young lawyers to be "radical activist attorneys." At 36, Monica is the second oldest lawyer on staff.
"One has to be proud of the work we are doing. There are a few people in the world who are strong enough and brave enough to take these risks for a cause that is greater than we are, and the results are going to effect so many people that it is worth it," said Mónica.