Women leaders and jurists honour the work and life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Human Rights Day

As part of the Leaders for Generation Equality campaign, UN Women, together with Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, Stanford Law School Center on the Legal Profession, and University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, paid tribute to the global legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a high-level interactive discussion with eminent leaders, jurists and experts across the world on International Human Rights Day 2020.


On International Human Rights Day 2020, at a global, virtual interactive event, UN Women and partners convened an intergenerational, high-level group of women leaders and jurists to reflect on the transformative impact of Justice Ginsburg’s work on equality in the law and in life.

The event began with a musical performance by international opera singer Denira Coleman, interpreting Gildas Aria from Rigoletto.

In the first discussion circle, “Equality in Public Life – the role of women leaders in transforming law and life”, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, called for all law schools to ensure that students receive gender equality training: “We find that when we work with judges, with prosecutors, in many countries that we work in, it is a big struggle for them to have a gender perspective…We hope you can help us to have more students who graduate fully armed to support gender equality through their practice of law.”

David Wilkins, Director of the Center on the Legal Profession and Vice Dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School added, “We need to be training lawyers as leaders, and to be leaders, lawyers have to understand the responsibility that they have to address the deep structural issues of race, gender and inequality that are pervasive in our world today.”

Moderator Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Penn Law Faculty on Global Leadership and Leader in Practice Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program (2019-2021), also called for all justices to use the CEDAW and other human rights instruments.

The participants explored how women’s leadership in jurisprudence can play a defining role in transforming the conditions toward full equality in society, and speakers evoked the profound influence of Justice Ginsburg’s legacy on jurists around the world in their quest for gender equality.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a reminder that it’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for,” said Rosalie Abella, Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Sisi Khampepe, Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, further illustrated this by explaining Justice Ginsburg’s influence on the South African Constitutional Court: “Through her jurisprudence and her life, Justice Ginsburg paved the way for a more equal society. Thanks to trailblazers like her, gender equality is a closer reality than it was when she first joined the bench.”

Gillian Lester, Dean of Columbia Law School, spoke to the importance of women’s equality in the labour force in the context of the numerous threats to gender equality that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated: “As we go forward, we need to continue the battle to shift women’s stubbornly disproportionate burden of unpaid domestic labour.”

Commenting on her own #MeToo story, Amanda Nguyen, CEO and Founder of Rise, said, “There’s a well-worn tradition of people taking their painful living truths and channelling that into justice. And Justice Ginsburg joined that tradition through her life’s work and paved the pathway for people like me to exercise my rights.”

Clara Spera, Lawyer, ACLU Legal Fellow and Justice Ginsburg’s granddaughter moderated the second discussion circle, “Equality in the Law – how feminist interpretations of the law can promote equality in public and private spheres”. This transnational conversation explored lessons and stories from around the world and reflected on the pioneering legal strategies that Justice Ginsberg adopted, in particular her emphasis on interpreting the Constitution of the United States in its fullest capacity to allow justice to prevail in favour of comprehensive and substantive equality.

Aminata Touré, Prime Minister of Senegal (2013-2014) and one of the Leaders for Generation Equality, insisted: “Countries and States must be held accountable to what they have signed. They have signed CEDAW, they have provisions in their Constitutions, so they have to apply them and pass the laws to make sure that we have 50/50 representation in elective structures.”

“Empowering women is not the same as putting women in power,” said Deborah Rhode, Director of the Centre on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School, speaking about how representation itself can veil setbacks on the advancement of equality.

In recalling the impact that Justice Ginsburg has had on the generations that came after her, Clara Spera highlighted: “While my grandmother was one of nine women in her law school class, I was in a law school class that was comprised of 50% women… I’ve been able to glide through the doors that she and her contemporaries forced open, and that women of my mothers’ generation held open.”

The event attracted more than 1500 registrations from audiences around the world and closed with a NexVox, Brain-wave music “improvisation duetting with the brain” performance by Masha Brodskaya from the Global Creative Initiative.

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