Volume 18, Number 2
March 2001


Developing Countries, Developing Rights

By Kathy Tatone

The lives of women around the world are bound up and circumscribed by the traditions and cultures of their countries of origin. A woman’s birthplace can determine whether she has opportunities equal to a man’s or is threatened with death for attempting to advance the rights of her own gender.

"We are lucky here in Bermuda because the issues facing women lawyers are no different from those facing men," says Dianna Kempe, a lawyer with an international practice based in the popular vacation spot. Across the globe, in the United Arab Emirates, however, Rita al Samaani says, "It is difficult to accept in the Arab world when people go to a woman for legal advice, unless she is a family or matrimonial lawyer." In other nations, women lawyers are operating under government protection for trying to advance laws regarding the positions of women and children. In still other countries, women don’t want to compare themselves to women lawyers in the United States, nor do they want to repeat our mistakes.Worldwide issues. As Ellen Goodman, columnist for The Boston Globe, has written, "The question of self sufficiency, of being able to plan your own life and have control over it...These are worldwide issues, something that women relate to across borders." Among the successes are women in Fiji, who are now able to work any hours they choose due to repeal of a law prohibiting women from working after 6:00 p.m. Female representation in Indian and Tanzanian legislatures is on the rise, due to adoption of one-third quotas for women representatives. Women lawyers in Egypt are initiating new legal literacy training programs.

With all the reported changes, it’s sobering to remember that women in some African countries were granted the vote only 15 years ago, and women in the United Arab Emirates were not allowed in schools before the 1960s. Though just a few years ago their mothers could not vote, young women in some African countries now make up half of law school enrollments.

LaJune Lange, an African American judge in Minneapolis, travels once a year to African nations, where she works to implement awareness of human rights laws. "These cultures are older than the Bible," she cautions, "and must be respected while African people struggle to make change against great odds. I worked in Kenya to introduce the concept of domestic abuse and am heartened to see that judges no longer dismiss these charges." It’s amazing what women lawyers in Zimbabwe have already achieved, Lange says, "when you remember that until the mid-1980s, women in Zimbabwe were treated by the law as children and could not sign contracts, own land, or get credit on their own." Within the space of a mere decade and a half, "they are now becoming judges and taking seats in Parliament." Threat of death. Not everyone within specific cultures, however, welcomes the fight for legal equality. Women lawyers in Pakistan and Mexico, for example, practice under threat of death for the issues they’ve embraced.

In Chile, women lawyers are not fighting for their lives, but they do battle cultural norms that hold them back. Sava Thomas, who teaches and works in the United States, has united women in Latin America by co-founding the Women Rights Committee of the Inter-American Bar Associa-tion, to provide a vehicle for women lawyers throughout Latin America to support one another and share experiences. Echoing the experiences of women lawyers almost everywhere, Thomas says, "There are more women in lower paying areas of law. Many of our judges are women, but they are paid less than corporate or large firm attorneys." Thomas emphasizes the dangers of generalizing among countries. "It mystifies me that the status of women is so different from one country to the next. In Colombia, for instance, there are lots of women in the best law firms and in the financial sector. At one meeting, all of the Colombian lawyers negotiating the foreign debt were women. In Panama the women are also extremely well integrated into the profession."

Thomas’s observations are echoed by retired judge Gloria Baeza. She believes that Chilean women have equal opportunity in the judiciary. Baeza admits that her experience as a woman in Chile’s traditional Latin culture makes her question the need for equality. "Why would a woman want to take on the duties of a man?" she asks "She already runs the home, and for us this is enough. We are forming a women’s bar association, but I don’t really see the point. Women already feel powerful enough." Baeza points out that "our culture is more matriarchal than that in the United States. The woman is the heart of the home and very respected here. We are not looking to the United States for guidance in the proper role of women."

Female Croatian lawyers, on the other hand, are losing ground, as a result of both the war and the switch from socialism to capitalism. Vesna Kesic reports that there were many women lawyers during the years of socialism. "Women were highly respected equals, and socialism allowed them to be fully employed. Now, women lawyers are losing out. As companies are forced to downsize, women are the first to go; they have trouble finding work due to prejudice and increased competition for fewer jobs." After the war, says Kesic, "a few women decided that we needed to help women and refugees. We began to recruit women lawyers and train them in international human rights. We...slowly developed an organization called BaBe (Be Active/Be Emancipat-ed), which works for human rights in Croatia."

Rita al Semaani is a law firm associate in Dubai, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is a young country that began educating women only 30 years ago. "It will take time for women to achieve equal status with men," she says. "I don’t know of any female judges, nor do many local women participate in our jurist association." Al Semaani, who organized a local group of the ABA International Section of Law and Practice’s Women’s Interest Network (WIN), adds, "Many of the local female lawyers are busy with their families and don’t come to the WIN meetings."Evolving opportunities. She is confident, however, that opportunities for women will continue to evolve. "The government is working hard to encourage education for everyone. A free education is provided to all citizens all the way through university. The status of women is improving."

Dianna Kempe believes that she has never experienced gender discrimination among the island’s 300 lawyers. "I see no need for any women’s initiatives in Bermuda," she says, "because women already have full equality, can attract the best clients, and do run major law firms." However, she knows that such equality does not exist everywhere. Kempe works with lawyers across the globe on initiatives designed to increase opportunities for women advocates. In addition, during a trip through Eastern Europe at the height of the Bosnia-Serbia conflict, Kempe received so many requests for information from women lawyers new to practice that she initiated an informal e-mail question-and-answer service.

Gabriella Barrios confronted discrimination by organizing the Women’s Bar Association in Mexico City. "The word feminist is very scary here, so I decided to focus on the need to share support and experiences through networking, rather than on tackling inequality." Barrios focuses on the positive aspects of being a woman lawyer. "I am going to redefine success for myself," she declares. "I don’t want the United States’ definition of success that requires long hours of work with little time for family or a balanced life." Most women are forced to leave their law careers when they have children "because the male system of productivity has been adopted," Barrios explains. "But Mexican women don’t want to leave their families and homes behind, so we are creating our own way of working, such as working from home. "

Kathy Tatone is an attorney and freelance writer in Minneapolis.

- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 8 of Perspectives, Summer 2000 (9:2).

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