Protecting Women from Violence with Pro Bono

On November 25, the world celebrated the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Around the world, violence against women and girls has become one of the most pervasive tragedies of our time. According to UN Women, up to 70 percent of women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. The group also states that acts of violence cause more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined, in women ages 15 to 44.

These statistics are among the reasons why the United Nations designated a day of recognition to promote awareness of violence against women. In honor of the brutal 1960 assassination of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists from the Dominican Republic, the day is meant to solemnly remind the world of the great injustices suffered by females.

Unfortunately, violence against women is a complex issue that takes many forms. It can be as extreme as female genital mutilation, a harmful practice experienced by approximately 100 to 140 million girls and women around the world. It can also occur in more common ways, such as domestic violence, a cruelty suffered by 3 million women a year in the U.S.

While ending violence against women is undoubtedly a daunting task, attorneys have eagerly risen to the challenge. Indeed, for many lawyers, the fight to end violence extends well beyond a designated day, as law firms devote countless pro bono resources to protect the basic human rights of women.  Here are a few inspiring examples:

  • Many lawyers assist immigrants that have been victims of violence and provide them with crucial legal representation. Lawyers at K&L Gates LLP*†  ensured that an immigrant from Benin, Africa would not be forced to make her daughter undergo genital cutting. After the client’s request for asylum was denied, her attorneys proved that if she was deported and sent back to Benin, her then five- year- old daughter would be forced to undergo the dangerous operation. In addition, lawyers at Ballard Spahr LLP*† have launched a U-Visa practice group to assist immigrants who have been victims of crime, often domestic violence, gain legal status in the United States. In the two years that the program has existed, more than two-dozen Ballard Spahr lawyers have volunteered to assist 18 clients in applying for U-Visas. The first visa was granted to a woman from Guatemala in April 2012. She was in a mentally and physically abusive relationship and decided to take action when her partner tried to strangle her. Because of the assistance she received from her pro bono attorneys, she has escaped her abusive partner and can now live her life without fear.
  • Other lawyers are taking steps to help craft legislation designed to protect women in the countries where it is most needed. For example, lawyers at the London office of Dechert LLP* are collaborating with Oxfam to launch a pro bono project called Raising Her Voice that aims to empower women in Africa. They are working to produce a high-quality legal analysis on the state of the Maputo Protocol, which guarantees comprehensive rights to females and aims to eliminate harmful practices against women. Furthermore, attorneys at Baker & McKenzie*†  have partnered with in-house counsel at Accenture** and Caterpillar, Inc.**  to assist the organization PILnet in crafting legislation designed to protect women from socio-economic and sexual exploitation in Nepal. Members of this pro bono team have already presented to Nepali legislators and are working to ensure that Nepali women are no longer victims.  Indeed, these organizations are working diligently to ensure that the legal system represents and protects women against violence.
  • In addition to their work abroad, many firms have taken steps to prevent violence against women closer to home by advocating on behalf of domestic violence victims. Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo P.C.*† has dedicated a large portion of its time and pro bono resources to its Domestic Violence Project.  Since the project started in 1989, the firm has represented more than 750 victims.  Currently, the firm is representing Crystal Harris, a woman who was brutally attacked by her husband.  Under California law, their client was forced to pay temporary support to her abuser before his prison sentence.  Her lawyers are working to determine the best options for her and have even assisted a California assembly member in creating legislation that protects domestic violence victims’ rights.  Perkins Coie LLP*† is another firm that has committed to representing women who have been harmed by their significant others.  Lawyers in the firm’s Chicago office have devoted many hours to helping people who come to the Cook County Domestic Violence Courthouse help desk seeking emergency orders of protect against their abusers.  In Virginia, the firm assisted a woman and her three daughters in obtaining a protective order against her husband, who set fire to the house and threatened them if they went to the authorities.

While these cases have fortunate endings, countless do not.  The reality faced by millions of women, particularly in developing nations, is tragic.  Yet, as these cases illustrate, lawyers have a unique ability to protect the human rights of women and end the pandemic of violence.  Every woman should have the basic right to live her life without fear of violence, and pro bono work is a wonderful way to give a voice to the millions of women whose lives have been affected by this issue.

Has your firm assisted any women who were victims of violence? If so, we’d love to hear from you.  Leave us a comment below and tell us about it.

* denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project

** denotes a Signatory to the Corporate Pro Bono ChallengeSM