Viviana Waisman '95 is devoted to furthering the human rights of women in society's margins.
Everything in the life of Viviana Waisman ’95—from her Her True Calling to her family history to her education and early work experiences—pointed in the same direction. “I’m one of those people who was born to work on social justice issues,” she said.
As a young lawyer in Madrid in the late 1990s, with little funding or connections, Waisman launched Women’s Link, a nonprofit organization that now operates in three continents with an international staff of 30, advocating for women at the margins of their societies.
Such commitment was in her blood: Her Jewish grandparents left Eastern Europe for Argentina in the years before World War II, and then her parents were exiled to the United States after the military coup upended Argentina in 1976. Her parents’ experiences instilled in Waisman a strong sense of right and wrong. Her mother was a teacher who Waisman said “used education as her social justice,” designing math classes for Spanish speakers..
Waisman’s path took her from UC Berkeley, where she earned a political science degree, to a year at Equal Rights Advocates, where she helped women who faced gender discrimination, and ultimately to UC Law SF, where she earned her JD and participated in a clinical program with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
The values that UC Law SF espoused dovetailed with her own ideas about the law. She particularly appreciated the way she said the law school engaged with the surrounding Tenderloin neighborhood “in order to give access to rights and to legal services” to poor people in need.
“That very much coincided with the way I understood the role of the law,” Waisman added. “The law should, in my mind, be used to break the status quo and to get more access to rights to more people.”
Rory Little, the Joseph W. Cotchett Professor of Law, said Waisman’s spirit was apparent even before he arrived at UC Law SF. Waisman was helping to organize a symposium on the federalization of crime and reached out to Little, a former federal prosecutor about to join the faculty. “Right off the bat, she impressed me and everyone else with her creative initiative in approaching problems,” Little said.
Waisman married an art historian while in law school, and they moved to New York City and then to Madrid in 1998. While her marriage didn’t last, she found her true calling.
In Spain, Waisman started a research project to develop a database of various innovative ways people were using the law to advance women’s rights. (She cites as one example U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s groundbreaking work advocating for men who had been victims of gender discrimination as a way of establishing a prohibition against such treatment.)
In those days, nonprofits did not have access to LexisNexis or other tools, and the internet had not matured to facilitate the spread of those ideas. “If you wanted to see what strategies might have worked or not worked in terms of advancing discrimination claims, you would only be looking at a narrow radius around you,” Waisman said.
Once she assembled the strategies, Waisman wanted to put them to work in actual litigation. She quickly teamed up with a Bogota-based law- yer to bring a case to Colombia’s constitutional court that, in 2006, decriminalized abortion in certain instances, including rape, incest, or situ- ations where the life or health of the woman is at stake—a landmark ruling that still stands today.
With that success, Waisman was off to the races. Little, her former professor, said one can’t understate the guts Waisman showed in starting Women’s Link.
“To start a women’s human rights legal project in Spain—which is a really male-dom- inated place, much more so than the U.S. and maybe more than other countries in Europe— is not just remarkable but courageous and almost stunning,” Little said.
“She has gotten funding from some major entities around the world and the U.S. by the force of her personality and intellect,” Little said. Yet, he added, “she is not, when you meet her, a forceful personality.”
“If you met her, you would not think she’s a steely, tough, bulldog lawyer,” Little said. “You think, ‘What a nice, smiling, charming person who is not threatening to me.’ By the end, though, you think, ‘I’d like to help this person,’ and you sign on.” Waisman took her initial mission and grew it over the years. Today, Women’s Link focuses primarily on reproductive rights, violence against women, and discrimination.
“In the Dominican Republic, where there’s a complete ban on abortion, we represent a woman whose daughter was a 16-year-old girl who was several weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with leukemia,” Waisman said. “The doctors didn’t give her access to a treat- ment because she was pregnant and so, as a consequence, she died. That’s what we see in countries where there are very restrictive laws. The consequences aren’t less abortions; it’s just more maternal mortality.”
Waisman notes: “There is no medical pro- cedure a man would ever need to save his life that’s in any criminal code anywhere in the world. And abortion is in criminal codes every- where, including to completely restrict it.”
Expanding the Mission
In recent years, Women’s Link has also started addressing the particularly troublesome matter of human rights violations that women suffer at international border crossings.
Giselle Carino, the CEO and regional director for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region, and a Women’s Link board member, cited an example of Waisman’s innovative thinking in this area.
In 2018, Carino and others went to a clinic on the Colombia-Venezuela border and heard stories of rape and other degradations women endured. “I knew, the minute Viviana heard those stories, she was going to come up with something, and she did,” Carino said.
The Women’s Link team found a 14-year-old girl who had walked to the border to escape the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, only to be raped by the man who helped her cross—and then to be denied health services once she was in Colombia. Women’s Link took the case and, earlier this year, won a major victory.
The Colombian Supreme Court ordered urgent measures to ensure care for her and her baby, setting what Women’s Link called an important precedent.
“No one else is thinking about these things,” Carino said. “Humanitarian organizations don’t think about migration as a right. What are the rights of women and girls when they are stateless? They’re not recognized by their home country or by their new country. I thought that was amazing. She does things like that all the time.”
Waisman has also grown Women’s Link from the Spanish-speaking world to representing women and girls in Africa, after noticing that many of the issues were similar. For instance, news that women were imprisoned in Rwanda for pregnancy-related crimes bore a resem- blance to similar jailings in El Salvador.
Women’s Link filed an amicus brief with the Rwandan court, helping get a woman’s life sentence reduced to 10 years—and then seeing the president, earlier this year, issue pardons to that woman and more than 300 others. “There are so many similarities between what happens in Rwanda and El Salvador,” Waisman said. “There is just a lot to learn about what happens in different countries with systems that restrict access to rights, and issues around poverty and who’s accessing health.”
Most of Women’s Link’s victories are not so clear-cut.
“You think of victory as winning,” Waisman said. “We define winning differently. If you’ve created a public debate or an awareness of rights violations that otherwise were completely invisible, so that the issue becomes front and center, that in itself is also a win.”
That kind of strategic thinking had a big impact on Keina Yoshida, whose first job was working with Waisman at Women’s Link, handling landmark cases in international courts.
“I learned so much from Vivi that I use today as a barrister in the UK,” Yoshida said in an email. “It’s a real skill to be able to advise on strategic litigation and see the bigger picture.
“Through Women’s Link and now her teaching, Vivi encourages lawyers both inside and out of the organization to work with the law, to make it inclusive and intersectional,” Yoshida said. “That’s a huge achievement and quite unique.”
With populism and anti-democratic sentiments on the rise around the world—in Brazil, India, Hungary, and even the U.S.—Waisman said the work of Women’s Link is needed more than ever.
“A lot of times, a reaction is, ‘Let’s work to pro- tect our democracy. We’ll figure out what’s going on with women’s rights later,’” Waisman said, adding that women’s rights are among the first to be threatened, and fighting to protect them can’t ever let up.
“It’s really an opportunity to put those issues front and center because that is where the attacks usually start,” Waisman said.
That brings her back to why she does this work in the first place—motivated in part, she said, by the values instilled at UC Law SF.
“We seek to have more women have more access to rights,” Waisman said. “We understand that if you take those people that are the furthest from access to rights, and you push them toward access, then you’re pushing everyone toward a more equal society. And that’s a vision of a more peaceful world where we all want to live.”