Women in Law. The Feminist Lawyer I Became

Woman walking up Steps of US Supreme Court

“I realized that I could really make a (maybe small, but still) change”

Sara De Vido is assistant professor of international law at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy, and affiliate to the Manchester International Law Centre, UK, where she co-founded the Women in International Law Network (WILNET). She wrote a book on the Istanbul Convention in 2016 (Donne, violenza e diritto internazionale), and several articles on the Convention and the impact of its ratification by the EU.

I am a feminist international human rights lawyer. I can say that eventually, after publishing numerous articles on the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, and speaking about this legal instrument, and the impact of its ratification by the European Union, in universities and other official contexts, from Sweden to Kosovo, from Manchester in UK, where I spend some time each year at the Manchester International Law Centre, to Japan.

I must confess that I dared not call myself a feminist international human rights lawyer until recently. I am not an activist and my first article on the Istanbul Convention dates back to as late as 2014. My PhD thesis had nothing to do with women’s rights. How could I call myself that? But then I was at the conference of the European Society of International law in Manchester last September, and had the almost unique opportunity to talk to Professors Christine Chinkin, Hilary Charlesworth and Dianne Otto: three amazing scholars, whose books have contributed to develop my interest in women’s rights and gender equality. Talking to them and sharing my views with other colleagues from around Europe, I realized that I could really make a (maybe small, but still) change, especially in Italy, where gender and the law is not so commonly taught as subject.

Speaking of gender issues might not be easy indeed in a country, and in my region more specifically, that has recently showed drawbacks in the protection of women’s rights and has directly put into question some of the major achievements Italian feminists have obtained over the decades. This is why acknowledging that my students, mainly female but also more and more male, are willing to work on final dissertations focusing on women’s rights and non-discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation is one of the things I am most proud of. And even though time is never enough, my purpose is to contribute to go beyond the academia, and to work with solicitors, local entities and schools, to raise awareness of the stereotypes with regard to women inherent in our societies.

I feel however lucky to work in a university, Ca’ Foscari in Venice, which is open-minded and has never stopped my initiatives on gender and the law. I have organized, along with colleagues from different disciplines, conferences, debates and events on violence against women, in particular within the framework of the Centre for human rights of which I am currently vice-director, and in cooperation with several partners, including the Council of Europe Office in Venice. I have introduced in my courses seminars – where possible, or at least debates – on gender issues, and on the principle of non-discrimination. I finally got the opportunity to teach this Spring semester, starting on 25. February, at Venice International University, San Servolo, Venice, the course of gender studies, open to students from the partner universities scattered around the globe. I am going to work with students on case law related to different topics, including abortion, female genital mutilation and genital cosmetic surgery, domestic violence and rape. Students will be encouraged to search for new cases decided in their country of origin.

I am indeed perfectly aware of the differences in legal systems, that is why I have really enjoyed conversations with my Japanese colleagues on women’s rights, and I am becoming more and more willing to analyse human rights (universal, as I firmly believe) taking into account the context in which they are applied, trying to overcome the biases of a European-centred approach. Not an easy task, though!

I am grateful to have been welcomed three years ago by the Manchester International Law Centre, which has supported me since the very beginning my current research on the relationship between violence against women and the right to health and reproductive rights. This research will soon become a book published for the Manchester University Press, Melland Schill Series, and which is the basis of my blog, still at the beginning and which will be enriched in the months to come, vawh.wordpress.com. While I was in Manchester I co-founded the Women in international law network, a professional community for both aspiring and established female scholars and lawyers in international law. Thanks to all the great researchers that I have met there over the years. WILNET is called the Olive Schill Society.

And here, mentioning Olive, comes my final comment. I am grateful to many colleagues, to those who I have met in several meetings and conferences around Europe and in Japan, to those with whom I am working to overcome the biases in the judiciary, to the scholars in my university that opened my eyes on gender matters, to colleagues that are now more friends than colleagues, to many experts at GREVIO and the Council of Europe, to the colleagues with whom I will soon work on a project for Elgar, and to the students for their always challenging questions. I cannot mention one by one the women that contributed to what I am today. I feel however close to Olive Schill, whom I have of course never met, but whose history, which I wrote starting from the scant information available and from a walk in the places where she used to live, will be always part of my research. I would finally like to mention three books (among the huge number of works I have read in these years), that have significantly marked my academic life: Simone De Beauvoir, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, which I read more than 20 years ago – who could have ever said at that time that it would have become so fundamental for me? Christine Chinkin and Hilary Charlesworth, Boundaries of International Law, which opened my mind to the limits of international law as I had studied until that moment and Susan Brownmiller, Against our will, that convinced me to work on violence against women.

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