Strategies to promote gender equality and end violence against women through pro bono legal services

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Flavia Regina de Souza Oliveira
Mattos Filho, Sao Paulo

Bianca dos Santos Waks
Mattos Filho, Sao Paulo



According to the World Health Organization (WHO),[1] nearly one in three women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by any perpetrator at some point in their life.[2] In Brazil, the study Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública,[3] published in 2019, showed that three women had been killed every day during 2018, giving Brazil the fifth highest rate of femicide in the world.

To make the situation even worse, Brazil is a country deeply scarred by racism and LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) phobia. Data from the above research,[4] shows that women of colour represented 61 per cent of femicide rates. Although public agencies do not specify whether the victims were trans, bisexual or homosexual, fatal violence disproportionately affects them, as it is known that homicide rates of LGBTI populations increased 30 per cent from 2016 to 2017.[5]

Faced with the persistent gender inequality and violations of women’s rights in Brazil,[6] Mattos Filho formulated a variety of actions promoting equal opportunities and opposing any kind of violence and discrimination. Over the past five years, the firm has refined its projects. The expansion of its pro bono services is notable for its focus on women’s rights, especially in 2018 when its programme was turned into a legal practice.[7]

A dedicated pro bono practice for women’s rights

The decision to create a team fully dedicated to women’s rights has increased its capacity to deal with more cases involving women in violence situations and increased the participation of associates in pro bono cases related to women’s rights.[8]

The experience has demonstrated that strengthening women’s rights requires integrated and systematic pro bono work that can make a greater impact if it combines:

  • providing free legal assistance for women exposed to gender-based violence;

  • supporting the structuring of civil societies focused on women’s rights

  • contributing to strategic litigation through the support of organisations and development of legal strategies in leading cases; and

  • undertaking legal knowledge research to help organisations develop their advocacy and litigation strategies.

To make this work feasible, it is essential to partner with human rights organisations[9] and provide integrative support to women, prioritising a multidisciplinary view and constant dialogue with the public sectors responsible for dealing with cases of violence. In parallel, it is important to challenge narratives that reinforce gender stereotype roles and offer ‘humanised’ legal assistance, using accessible language.[10] Finally, but no less important, the legal assistance must show absolute respect for women’s decision-making autonomy.

The legal assistance available to women who face domestic violence is mainly based on the provisions of Brazil's Federal Law 11340, known as Maria da Penha Law (Lei Maria da Penha), which aims to reduce domestic violence in the country. Sanctioned on 7 August 2006, this law is an important contribution to an international movement of criminalising violence against women. It was named in homage to Maria da Penha Maia, a former victim of domestic violence. The legal work in this field also involves proceedings on family, criminal and social security law, among others.

Pro bono contributions

Some individual pro bono work that Mattos Filho has been undertaking includes a compensation suit in the Brazilian jurisdiction related to the case Alyne Pimentel v Brazil.[11] This is considered a landmark case in the recognition of the women’s right to access safe maternity and basic healthcare services. The pro bono work consisted of representing the mother and first daughter of Alyne da Silva Pimentel, a woman of colour who lived in very difficult socioe-conomic circumstances and died of pregnancy-related causes during her sixth month of pregnancy. The case became iconic for human rights after the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) found that her death was preventable and that was the result of lack of diligence by Brazil’s healthcare system.

Pro bono lawyers have also assisted a student from a public university who had suffered sexual harassment from her Master of Administration advisor. As a continuation, the work followed on to analyse regulation and internal policies of the main universities from seven different countries. The final report will be used in a public civil suit moved by the local Public Defender aimed at stablishing an effective policy in the University of São Paulo.

Research, which is an everyday activity in almost every law firm, is an essential contribution that can enable participation instrategic litigation matters and contribute to cases promoting the human rights agenda.[12]

Another example is work alongside the Anis – Bioethics Human and Gender Rights Institute (Anis  Instituto de Bioética, Direitos Humanos e Gênero), a Brazilian organisation dedicated to social research, advocacy, strategic litigation and communication related to the defence of sexual and reproductive rights. Mattos Filho has presented a memorandum of amici curiae in a collective habeas corpus petition in favour of all pregnant and puerperal women, as well as mothers of children up to 12 years old, in pre-trial imprisonment, seeking to have their detention replaced by house arrest, in what is considered a landmark decision in Latin America in favour of incarcerated women.

In 2019, in partnership with the Centre for Reproductive Rights (CRR), Mattos Filho also contributed to the discussion of the Claim of Breach of Fundamental Precept no 442 (ADPF), under examination at the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court. The central thesis defended in the ADPF is that the legal reasons that justified criminalisation of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy in Brazil’s 1940 Penal Code are no longer supported.

After the shocking case regarding the rape of a 16-year-old girl by more than 30 men – who also posted the video of the assault – in Rio de Janeiro in 2018, Mattos Filho undertook research for Equality Now, an organisation that runs projects combating violence and discrimination against women. The report helped the organisation identify legal and procedural aspects of Brazilian law and the international system of human rights protection, in addition to mapping out the main governmental and social institutions which operate in this field.


These experiences show the impact law firms can have in helping to eliminate violence against women and promote gender equality. In this regard, creating a practice fully dedicated to pro bono has shown to be an effective strategy to enhance the work dedicated to public interest matters, since it allows specialisation and better coordination of effort. In addition, medium and large law firms can rapidly put together a team of lawyers to undertake research and analysis, contributing to national and international civil society organisations dedicated to strategic litigation. All these efforts comprise the sustainability of the private sector and speciality law firms that lies in its social responsibility and commitment to human rights.


[1] ‘Violence against women: Intimate partner and sexual violence against women – Evidence brief’, 12 November 2019, World Health Organization.

[2] WHO, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, South African Medical Research Council, ‘Global and regional estimates for violence against women: prevalence and health burden of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence.’ Geneva: WHO, 2013.

[3] S Bueno and R S Lima, Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública 2019. Brasília: Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública (2019).

[4] Ibid.

[5] M Cerqueira, E Michels and L Mott, Relatório 2017. Salvador: Grupo Gay da Bahia (2018).

[6] According to World Health Organization, gender-based violence is ‘violence involving men and women, in which the female is usually the victim; and which is derived from unequal power relationships between men and women. Violence is directed specifically against a woman because she is a woman, or affects women disproportionately. It includes, but is not limited to, physical, sexual and psychological harm (including intimidation, suffering, coercion, and/or deprivation of liberty within the family, or within the general community),’ WHO, Promoting gender equality to prevent violence against women, Geneva, 2009.

[7] The 100 per cent pro bono practice has two partners and a full-time senior lawyer who works with a team of four lawyers and four trainees. In addition, each of our offices has at least one partner responsible for pro bono cases.

[8] In 2019, 115 professionals dedicated 3,341 pro bono hours to the defence of women’s rights, distributed among 43 cases from 23 different clients, among which ten were civil society organisations that work with women’s rights and 13 were women exposed to gender-based violence.

[9] Notable agreements with the São Paulo State Public Defender’s Office (Defensoria Pública do Estado de São Paulo) and the Women’s Defence and Living Centres in the Municipality of São Paulo (Centros de Defesa e de Convivência da Mulher da Prefeitura da Cidade de São Paulo) were essential for the firm to provide assistance on individual cases of women in social economic vulnerability who are exposed to violence.

[10] A F L D’Oliveira and L B Schraiber, Mulheres em situação de violência: entre rotas críticas e redes intersetoriais de atenção. Revista de Medicina, vol 92 no 2, (2013).

[11] Alyne, a woman from Belford Roxo, in the State Rio de Janeiro, was 28 years old and six-months pregnant when she died in a public hospital due to lack of satisfactory medical care.

[12] The book ‘Human rights in evidence: research and studies undertaken by Mattos Filho, Veiga Filho, Marrey Jr e Quiroga Advogados in its pro bono work’ (Direitos humanos em evidência: pesquisas e estudos elaborados por Mattos Filho, Veiga Filho, Marrey Jr e Quiroga Advogados em sua atuação pro bono) was published in Portuguese and English in 2019. It contains studies, research papers and memoranda prepared up to 2019.


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