Changing the tune

Jane Gabriel
26 October 2007

by Jane Gabriel

A story from Colombia told by Monica Roa, Programme Director of Women's Link Worldwide in Colombia, vividly illustrated the power of taking Professor Sai's advice and changing the tune to fit each audience.

Introducing herself as "not really an expert on courts or on abortion" she went on to describe the successful way in which they had targeted the courts as way of challenging the total ban on abortion in Colombia. She asked the room of 700 abortion rights experts and providers how many of their organisations had mailing lists. 99% of the hands went up. When she asked how many of them had judges on their mailing lists 3 hands went up. Her point was made. Until then the Colombian courts had not been within women's group's radars, so they brought them in.

Recognising that judges are not blind, that their eyes are very much a result of their own experiences in life and that they are also the intermediaries between what is written in law and the reality of its implementation, they went to work on them, recognising them as potential allies. They ran a pilot project drafting a challenge using international treaties and human rights laws, they shifted the debate from the moral and religious, to social justice, health and women's equality. And what happened? In April ‘05 85% of Colombians were against any liberalisation of abortion. A year later 54% were in favour of a partial liberalisation. By May' 06 the percentage had risen to 65%, in September ‘06 85% of Colombians agreed that an eleven year old girl who had been raped by her stepfather should be entitled to an abortion. On May 10th Colombia introduced a law legalizing limited abortion (Colombian Abortion Law).

What happened next? Monica Roa, some of the judges, the grandmother of the girl who had taken her to the doctor, were ex-communicated by the Catholic church - but the stepfather who had raped the girl was never mentioned. The media then came on board and showed the Catholic church giving communion to the paramilitaries and asked " Is it more moral to be a mass killer than a rapist?". Then the politicians came on board, they had had several opportunities to change abortion law in Colombia but they thought it was a vote loser. This time Monica found herself being invited by the mainstream political parties to run as their candidate, she was even asked to be vice president. She was appointed ‘Woman of the Year', and even beauty queens started to talk about abortion. Women's Link Worldwide had proved that by changing their tune they had not only got the message out, but they had won audiences way beyond their dreams and changed the lives of thousands of women in Colombia.


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