Vance Center Organizes Regional Conference on Strategic Litigation on Women in Prison

February 2023

The Vance Center’s Human Rights and Access to Justice Program held a conference in Bogotá on strategic litigation initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean, bringing together more than 30 advocates, activists, and lawyers from the region to engage on key topics around women's incarceration.

Participants in the Vance Center’s conference on strategic litigation initiatives on women in prison in Latin America and the Caribbean, Bogotá, Colombia, January 2023. (Photo credit: Vance Center)

The Vance Center’s Human Rights and Access to Justice Program held a conference in Bogotá, Colombia on strategic litigation initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean as part of its ongoing work with the Women in Prison Network. The three-day conference brought together more than 30 advocates, activists, and lawyers from the region to engage on key topics including the fundamentals of bringing strategic litigation cases before the Inter-American and United Nations human rights systems, best practices in identifying common issues and building cases with a wide regional impact, and documenting/highlighting existing cases with strong potential for addressing key aspects of women’s incarceration.

The conference included several technical workshops led by legal experts covering the basic elements of strategic litigation, the significance of non-legal and victim-centered complementary approaches to strategic litigation, tools for measuring success and amplifying positive jurisprudence to ensure States’ compliance with sentences, reparations for victims of the carceral system, and numerous case studies related to the human rights of incarcerated women. The active participation of conference attendees, particularly women who were themselves formerly incarcerated, enriched the discussions and shed light on the many challenges that women face both during their incarceration and after they have regained their liberty. These hurdles include lack of state support in securing employment, housing, and healthcare; continued harassment at the hands of law enforcement as a result of their past encounters with the criminal justice system; stigmatization from their own communities; and difficulties in rebuilding relationships with their families and loved ones after years of separation.  

The issues and cases highlighted in the conference will provide a basis for the Network’s regional strategic litigation plan in the coming years and offer a roadmap for Network members to pursue independent litigation strategies and advocacy efforts in their own jurisdictions. Participants expressed excitement at the opportunity to reunite with advocates and engage in meaningful discussions around using strategic litigation as one of many tools to highlight issues facing women who have encountered the criminal justice system. 

This conference is part of the Vance Center’s expanded emphasis on strategic litigation around women’s incarceration. In 2022, the National Endowment for Democracy awarded the Vance Center a two-year grant to pursue strategic litigation initiatives before regional and international human rights mechanisms. The project focuses on litigation and advocacy that will tackle the root causes, conditions, and consequences of women’s incarceration in the region and lead to stronger legal frameworks and greater discourse on the subject. 

Recognizing a gap in research and advocacy on women’s imprisonment, the Vance Center launched the Women in Prison Project in 2017 to promote global collaboration on improving conditions of women’s imprisonment by convening women prisoners’ rights advocates from the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Through these efforts, the project aims to share information about conditions of women’s imprisonment in their respective countries or regions and build capacity for improved monitoring and reporting of conditions in women’s prisons. An international conference in Colombia in September 2018, co-organized with Penal Reform International, led to the creation of the first global network of advocates for women prisoners. The Network has continued to grow since then and now consists of 50 individuals, including formerly incarcerated women, and 34 organizations from 21 countries across every continent.