The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a champion of women’s rights and prevailed over systemic sexism in the legal ranks to become one of America’s best-known jurists.
Ginsburg cast key votes in landmark rulings securing gender equality, expanding gay rights and safeguarding abortion rights.
Across the world, other women trailblazers from Ethiopia and India to Kenya and Colombia have achieved similar victories in their home countries, pioneering changes in laws and setting legal precedent from the highest court benches.
LEONA THERON, SOUTH AFRICA
Theron is one of 11 judges at South Africa’s Constitutional Court.
She has become known for challenging laws that discriminate against women and girls from the bench of the highest court.
Aged 33, Theron became the first Black female judge, as well as the overall youngest judge, to be appointed at the KwaZulu-Natal division of the high court in 1999.
Since then, Theron has handed down numerous judgments promoting the rights of women in South Africa.
A prominent 2008 ruling argued that women married in customary marriages have equal rights and benefits to their spouses. This was upheld by the Constitutional Court, helping mainly Black women to benefit from their property rights.
Theron has also been a staunch defender of justice for rape survivors. In 2006, at the Supreme Court of Appeal, Theron dissented a majority judgment that had decreased the life sentence of a rapist to 16 years in jail.
Theron once wrote: “Against the backdrop of the unprecedented spate of rapes in this country, courts must also be mindful of their duty to send out a clear message to potential rapists and to the community that they are determined to protect the equality, dignity and freedom of all women.”
NJOKI SUSANNA NDUNG’U, KENYA
Ndung’u was appointed to Kenya’s Supreme Court in 2011, and is one of only two women currently serving the seven-member court.
Before becoming a Supreme Court justice, the advocate served as a member of parliament for four years where she was instrumental in bringing forward legislation to protect and empower Kenya’s women and girls.
Ndung’u is the architect of Kenya’s Sexual Offences Act 2006 – a landmark piece of legislation – aimed at giving victims of sexual violence access justice and punishing perpetrators.
Often known as the ‘Njoki law’, it introduces mandatory minimum sentences for a wide range of offences including child rape, trafficking for sexual exploitation, and the deliberate transmission of HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.
During her parliamentary term, Ndung’u was behind amendments to Kenya’s Employment Act 2007 which provided for paid maternity and paternity leave, and the Political Parties Act 2007 on affirmative action measures for women in politics.
During a TED talk in 2017, Ndung’u advocated for more women in the policy-making positions in government.
“If you are absent at the table, so are your interests,” she said.
ELIZABETH ODIO BENITO, COSTA RICA
Benito is the first female president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Americas top court, and is the only woman among seven other judges serving on the court based in Costa Rica.
She is best known for seeking justice and defending the rights of women and girls who have suffered rape and sexual violence during conflict.
Benito, born in Costa Rica, rose to prominence in the 1990’s as a judge on the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia that dealt with war crimes.
She played a key role in establishing case law arguing that wartime rape and other forms of sexual violence were used as weapons of war, as a means of terror, and were war crimes.
As president of the Inter-American Court, Benito has said: “We must accept that we will only live in true democracies if women, in all their diversity, participate in making all the decisions that affect our lives.”
MEAZA ASHENAFI, ETHIOPIA
Ashenafi was appointed Ethiopia’s first female Supreme Court Chief in November 2018.
As an adviser to a commission drafting Ethiopia’s new constitution in the early 1990s’, and later as a lawyer fighting for victims of domestic and sexual violence, inheritance disputes and custody battles, Ashenafi helped enshrine in law many protections for women and girls.
Her most famous case was turned into the 2014 award-winning Ethiopian film “Difret” – promoted by Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie as executive producer.
The film is based on a court case where Ashenafi defended a teenage girl for killing a man who had abducted and raped her.
Ashenafi’s efforts got the charges against the teenager dropped – and resulted in the outlawing of the tradition of kidnapping girls to be forced into marriage in Ethiopia.
The advocate is also credited with creating a word in Amharic – one of Ethiopia’s main languages – to describe sexual harassment.
“Naming it was very important,” said Ashenafi in an interview with American broadcaster VOA last year. “Unless you name it, it’s difficult to advocate for legislative reform to articulate the issue and publicise and expose the practice.”
MONICA ROA, COLOMBIA
Roa, a Colombian human rights lawyer, is known for spearheading changes in law to promote reproductive rights.
In 2006, Roa brought a case before Colombia’s constitutional court to get the country’s blanket ban on abortion overturned.
In a historic ruling, the court ruled abortion was allowed under limited circumstances – in cases of rape, incest, fetal malformation, or if the life of the mother or fetus is in danger.
Her case has served as an example and inspiration for other lawyers in Latin America seeking to decriminalize abortion.
“All the attempts to overturn the court’s decision since then have been defeated and the law is still strong and binding,” Roa once told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “But women still haven’t been able to access their abortion rights without obstacles and without being stigmatised.”
MENAKA GURUSWAMY, INDIA
Guruswamy, 45, is a senior lawyer at India’s Supreme Court and has become an icon for the country’s LGBT+ community.
She and her partner Arundhati Katju, also a lawyer, helped to overturn India’s colonial-era law against homosexuality in 2016.
A Rhodes scholar who read law at Oxford University and at Harvard University, Guruswamy is an expert on constitutional law, and has advised Nepal on framing its constitution.
She is a leading voice in upholding constitutional rights and equality for women, religious minorities and sexual minorities, in particular.
Asked for her advice to young women lawyers, Guruswamy once said: “The law is a wonderful profession, but I think in India as a woman, and as a woman lawyer, you have to listen to your heart and say that you will get there. Because everything around you says that you can’t.”
INDIRA JAISING, INDIA
Jaising, 80, is a senior advocate in India’s Supreme Court and was the country’s first woman additional solicitor general between 2009 and 2014.
In the early days of her career, she took up cases defending the rights of air hostesses seeking pay parity and promotions, as well as the rights of street hawkers and the homeless.
Jaising, born in pre-independent India in 1940, studied arts and law at Bangalore University and the University of Mumbai and was a rare woman in India’s male-dominated courts when she started practicing.
She has taken on a powerful police officer and a high court judge in sexual harassment cases and played a pioneering role in the drafting of India’s laws against sexual harassment at workplace and against domestic violence.
She has also fought for equal inheritance rights for women and for their equal rights in child custody cases.
Jaising once said she believes that law is like “plasticine in our hands, and we must shape it to the benefit of the most vulnerable and marginalised”.
Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Tom Finn