Interview with VALÉRIA PANDJIARJIAN
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a 39 years old Brazilian feminist lawyer, who was born and have ever lived in São Paulo city, with the privilege of travelling a lot around my country and abroad due to my job, which I particularly love. I am single, with no children and with a very supportive family and friends in life and work. I am the youngest daughter of a trader and a housewife married 47 years ago, and I have one brother and two sisters, and a sweet nephew of 4 years old, a very smart boy. My grandparents from both side were Armenians, born in Turkey and Syria (except my grandmother from my mother side, who was born in Brazil), and they came to Brazil in order to get a better and safer life, specially after the Genocide committed by Turkey against 1,5 million of Armenians in the beginning of the last century (1915).
I have spent the most part of my life working as a consultant in gender and human rights, with focus on issues of discrimination and violence against women, sexual and reproductive rights. I have been working for CLADEM, the Latin American and Caribbean Committe for the Defense of Women´s Rights, during the last 16 years, developing a wide range of activities involving advocacy strategies at national, regional and international levels, which have implied actions resulting in changing national legislations and public policies affecting women´s rights as well international and national jurisprudence regarding women´s rights and so on. I had also the opportunity of attending international courses specialization in human rights as well women´s rights advocacy and sharing my knowledge and skills by training women, activists, health and law professionals in this field.
CLADEM is a regional network, a non-profit organization that for around 20 years has articulated persons and groups in Latin America and the Caribbean for the promotion, vigilance and defense of the interdependent and integral women’s human rights from a social and juridical scope, with a feminist perspective in a dynamic that interconnects local, regional and international levels. With Consultative Status at the United Nations (UN) and its equivalent at the Organizations of American States (OAS), CLADEM´s network has its regional office based in Lima, Peru, counting with regional programmes of international monitoring and litigation as well capaciting building, and it is represented in around 15 countries of the region, developing these different strategies and activities for strengthening women´s rights, which includes also legislative proposals, research, training, educational publication, information dissemination, communication and solidarity actions.
Besides being part of the Brazilian chapter of CLADEM since its creation in 1992, I worked, between 2002 and 2005,as coordinator of the CLADEM´s regional area of violence and, since August 2007, I have been responsible for the CLADEM´s international litigation program, supporting the network actions of individual complaints, before the UN and OAS mechanisms, addressed against States for violations of international human rights treaties. Additionaly, I am now finishing my mandate as part of the Management Committee of CLADEM (2006-2008). I am also founder associate of women´s organizations in Brazil such as the Patricia Galvão Institute – Communication and Media and the Association 1000 Women for Peace, as well member of the council of the Feminist Collective Health and Sexuality, Dandara Center of Popular Legal Advisors and Institute for the Promotion of Equity.
What do you enjoy most about your profession?
The most interesting aspect about my profession is the privilege of joining my juridical background education with human rights’ activism to work in favor of women’s rights, specially in order to contribute in providing better conditions for womens life in Brazil and other countries of Latin America and Caribbean region. I have also the opportunity of exchanging and learning a lot from the diversity of cultures and womens experiences, expanding my own views and perceptions on the world.
One of the most important achievement in my work with CLADEM is related to an international litigation in a case of domestic violence against women. Maria da Penha, a Brazilian pharmacist, in 1983was victim of double attempted murder by her then husband and father of her three daughter, at her own home, in Fortaleza (Ceará, Brazil). The agresor, Marco Antonio Heredia Viveiros, a colombian with Brazilian naturalization, economist and professor, shot her on the back while she was sleeping, bringing to a climax a series of acts of aggression carried out over the course of their married life. As a result of this aggression, Maria da Penha suffered irreversible paraplegia and other physical and psychological trauma. He tried to cover up the attack by reporting it was an attempted robbery by thieves who had fled. Two weeks after Maria da Penha returned from the hospital he again attempted to kill her by trying to electrocute her while she was bathing. At that point, she decided to seek a legal separation from him and began her fight for justice.
Until 1998, more than fiftheen years after the crime, despite having already two convictions by the Court of the Jury (1991 and 1996), there was not yet a final decision in the process and the agresor was kept in freedom, what motivated Maria da Penha, CEJIL (Center for Justice and International Law) and CLADEM to send an individual complaint to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of Organizaton of American States (IACHR/OAS). The Brazilian State did not respond to the petition and kept silent during the whole proceeding.
In 2001, the IACHR declared the Brazilian State responsible for omission, negligence and tolerance in relation to domestic violence against Brazilian women, based on violations of the American Convention on Human Rights and the Convention of Belém do Pará (Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women), establishing recommendations of individual nature to the case as well of public policies to the country (Report Nº 54/01, Case 12.051, Maria da Penha Maia Fernades, Brazil, April 16, 2001, http://www.cidh.oas.org/women/Brazil12.051.htm ). This is an emblematic case. It is the first time the Convention of Belém of Pará was applied in the inter-american system and that a country as declared internationally responsible for violations in cases of domestic violence against women, recognizing the domestic violence against women as a human rights violation under international jurisprudence.
Only due to the effective use of the international system of protection of human rights, in actions of litigation and monitoring, an under national and international political pression it was finally possible to conclude the judicial process at national level, in March 2002, and arrest the agressor in October of the same year. We have reported the case of Maria da Penha also to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) in 2003, which has recommended to the Brazilian State, among other measures, to adopt without delay, a legislation on domestic violence. In 2006, as a result of a joint accion between civil society and State, it was approved the national Law 11.340 (Law Maria da Penha), creating mechanisms to restrain domestic and familiar against women, with a very integral perspective in dealing with the problematic. In December 2007, I received the “Maria da Penha Award” with more other women, for being one of the women conducing the case and contributing to the Federal Law 11.340/2006 (Law Maria da Penha) on domestic violence against women in Brazil, given by the Association of Relatives and Friends of Victims of Violence (APAVV), Fortaleza, Ceará. Next step must be a public event in which the State of Ceará will provide an indenization to Maria da Penha as well the Brazilian State must do an official recognition of its international responsibility for the human rights violations in the case, among other accomplishments of the recommendations of the IACHR decision.
Why did you become a lawyer?
Well, this is funny. I really wanted to be a dancer. I used to practice ballet as well tap dance for years. But I also had so many other interests in life. I wanted to be a journalist, psychologist, philosopher, biologist, nutritionist, among other things… including a lawyer. Apropos, since very early, I was called “the lawyer” by the whole family, due to the fact I was always defending someone or strongly arguing before an unfair situation. I think that, like dancing, this was a very spontaneous action and reaction; something natural that just came out from my sensitiveness, as well the need of expressing my ideas, believes and values. So, I went for the Law School at the Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC/SP), being awarded, at the end of the course, as the best law student during the period 1988–1992.
Tell us how you became an advocate for Women’s rights?
Since I was in the University – which was a landmark in my life – I was touched by a very critical approach regarding Law and became interested in promoting the social function of Law in order of not using it to maintain the “status quo” (establishment), but on the contrary, believing on the capability of using it as an instrument of changes in society, looking for contributing to a more democratic system, with social justice and committed to the elimination of social inequalities based on gender, ethnical and racial, social class and any other form of discrimination. This vision was shared with some few colleagues and professors, and the influence of a very special professor of mine, Ms. Silvia Pimentel, was definitely “guilty” for my entrance in the universe of human rights and feminism, becoming an advocate for womens rights. Ms. Pimentel invited me to be her assistant at the University, what I did for some period, and was introducing me to the feminist and womens movement at national and international level as well to the work with non-governmental organizations in this field. At that time, we began the work of CLADEM in Brazil and have established a very solid partnership, developing researches, writing books, essays and articles together and building a valuable friendship.
Ms. Pimentel is a very well known jurist and feminist, national and internationally, and one of ” A Thousand Women for the Nobel Peace Prize” (2005). She is one of the founders of CLADEM-Regional and member of its Consultive Council, has coordinated CLADEM-Brasil for more than 10 years and has been an independent expert of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) since 2005, as well is again the candidate of the Brazilian government for the period of 2009-2012, due to her excellent work realized for the women’s human rights. So, she was very responsible for making me use law education to get involved in women human rights activism. It is not neither a coincidence, I found in the network the “slogan”: CLADEM, women using the law as a tool for change. And we work to change Law and the culture that influence its practice as well, of course.
What life event or incident made you choose to support them?
Besides the key role of Ms. Pimentel, I think there is no other specific life event or incident that made me choose to support women in my work. I think this is also a result of the observation and reflection on what happens around. I come from and we live in a very patriarcal and male chauvinist, classist, racist and homophobic culture, in a very deeply way, in which women have been oppressed and suffered different kind of violence and discrimination, for the simple of fact of being women. Gender is a key element in the structure of the society and as much as I was recognizing the prejudices, stereotypes and discriminations, discovering all the dynamics around my own life and in the world, as a woman, it was impossible did not get involved. But the world has been changing, is changing and will change even more….
From where do you draw inspiration?
The inspiration comes from different sources, but each time more it comes mainly from the empowerment, determination and solidarity I have found with so many incredible women, in all their diversity, I have met in my life and work in Brazil and in different parts of the world. And for sure, especially from all my CLADEM´s partners.
What one thing would you like to learn in the coming year?
I hope to learn more about international litigation, in order to improve my skills for conducting the programme that I have been in charge and enjoying life with more equilibrium, giving the right and enough time and energy for work and personal life, having a lot of fun, and smiling.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I have no idea what the future still can bring to me or where and how I see myself in 5 or 10 years, but certainly I will keep being a feminist lawyer, working for womens human rights some how, wherever I be.
What do you do for fun, relaxation?
For fun and to relax, among other things, I love to see good movies; read interesting books – specially novel and poetry; go out for a long walk, enjoying the city, the nature of countryside or the beach; be with friends for conversation, singing and dancing, and play with my nephew.
What do you want to accomplish before you leave this world?
Among so many others desires, maybe a great task and dream that I wanted to see accomplished before leaving this world – as a woman, feminist and womens human rights advocate – is the legalization of abortion in Brazil and in the whole Latin American and Caribbean region.
From a very personally level, I do not expect to do anything of extraordinary before I leave this world. Maybe to attend a post-grade study in human rights abroad, having the opportunity of living and working in other country for some period and also, who knows, to come back some day to tap dance or whatever, to write more and more, things that I love to do. I feel that, in great part, I became the woman that wanted to, and I try to live my life in accordance with my principles and believes and each day of my work is part of the commitment to change the world in a short, medium and long term, and from which most of the best results probably can benefit future generations. I just want to keep walking like that and be opened to the best that comes through into my life; it will be, at least, enough.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
As everyone, I have passed through very hard and difficult times in life, most of them related to personal health problems, and all these experiences have been cumulative and brought me so many lessons. Some of them are very simple and related to discover and take advantage of your talents, always being exactly what you are, establishing a connection among what you think, feel and do and being aware and respectful within your own limits. Also, be aware that life is made by choices, and that it chooses better those who know exactly what they are loosing. We are always making choices in life and things only have the meaning that we give to them.
The way by women and men enjoy their rights in life is an issue that interest to all of us. And we always can do something for improving interpersonal, collective and social relations in our private and public lives. You can do small or big things. It doesn’t matter the extent of our actions, but the purpose, the sense and the commitment with them. It can begin with yourself, with the other, within your family, your community or neighborhood, your company or place of work, whatever… Citizenship is something that we learn to exercise everyday, and we can invent many ways of doing it.
Finally, I would like to share with all of you an idea of the great Portuguese writer and Nobel Prize, José Saramago, which for me is one of the most beautiful and Utopic expressions of human rights; under a free translation, it says something like … to tolerate the existence of the other and allow him to be different is still very little or is not that much. When we tolerate, we are just granting and this is not a relationship of equality, but of superiority from one on the other. We should create a relationship among the people from which the tolerance and the intolerance were excluded.
CLADEM´s webpage is: www.cladem.org – you can reach VALÉRIA by mail at
Rua Joaquim Távora 1020/62 B
CEP: 04015-012, Vila Mariana
São Paulo, SP – Brasil