Program Overview

International Women's Human Rights (IWHR) Clinic students engage in cutting edge human rights work under close clinical supervision. The Clinic maintains a diverse docket of projects, providing students broad experience in human rights practice. Current projects are available here. [insert link] Through the clinical seminar and project work, IWHR students develop a sound understanding of international human rights and sharpen lawyering skills necessary for effective law reform-oriented advocacy work applicable in both U.S. and international contexts. IWHR is directed by Professor Cynthia Soohoo, an expert on reproductive rights and human rights in the United States. Professor Soohoo co-teaches the IWHR Clinic with Professor Lisa Davis, an expert on sexual orientation and gender identity and violence against women in post-conflict and humanitarian situations. Suzannah Phillips is the current IWHR Clinic fellow.

Widely recognized for its expertise and contributions to gender jurisprudence and human rights practice, the IWHR Clinic advocates before international and regional human rights bodies and national and local courts and legal institutions. Our projects combat gender discrimination and sexual violence, advance reproductive and sexual rights and economic and social rights, and promote women's participation and empowerment. By addressing problems through the lens of human rights, IWHR students use international human rights law and institutions to challenge and expand rights protections in both domestic and international fora.


Goals and Principles: Education and Advocacy

IWHR represents and collaborates with survivors of violations and activists, contributing legal and gender expertise to address the needs of women in various contexts. We work to develop human rights norms and mechanisms and to hold perpetrators and states accountable for rights violations. IWHR's work is directed to the UN system, regional systems, particularly the Inter-American human rights system, and to applying international human rights in the United States. IWHR provides students a "hands-on" opportunity to develop a broad range of lawyering skills while they engage in creative law reform or cause lawyering involving international human rights. IWHR provides valuable experience for students who wish to pursue careers in international human rights as well as in public interest law in the US as international human rights principles are increasingly relevant to domestic legal work. In addition, a significant portion of IWHR's work involves litigation and advocacy in US courts and institutions. IWHR is offered as a full year clinic with 8 credit hours per semester. IWHR includes a bi-weekly seminar in which we teach skills relevant to both international and domestic work. The seminar provides an overview of human rights law and forums and examines theory, legal developments and advocacy possibilities for integrating a gender perspective into human rights frameworks. The majority of students' time is devoted to working on cases and advocacy projects, which involve individual work and meetings with supervisors in project teams. Different project experiences are shared and discussed in periodic "rounds."

IWHR works to develop international law "from the ground up." We are an active part of the international women's human rights movement, but our projects focus on working with women's rights activists on the domestic level in the US and abroad. Some of our work involves representation of individual clients in litigation contexts, but many of projects are collaborations with local lawyers, activists and communities. This provides students an opportunity for interaction with other advocates in the field, expands the resources available for this work and, often, contributes to enhancing their knowledge and capacity to engage in international women's human rights concepts and advocacy.

IWHR also devotes a significant portion of its resources to implementing international human rights in US jurisprudence and policy-making. This provides students an opportunity to practice in US judicial and legislative processes as well as understand the legal basis and means for applying international human rights domestically. The seminar provides an opportunity for comparing US constitutional interpretations with international human rights principles and some projects increasingly involve litigation of human rights concerns in US courts.


Typical Student Practice

The two semesters of the IWHR Clinic offer students a number of work options from which to choose. In the course of a year, students work directly on one or more cases or projects. Some students represent individual clients, while others work with legal and activist partners here and abroad on various advocacy projects. Because we encourage collaboration, students are assigned to teams and also often work with lawyers outside the Clinic. The teams meet weekly with their supervisors, as well as individually where necessary, to discuss their projects and benefit from each other's experiences.


Distinctive Skills Focus

Our litigation, projects and skills agenda are designed to prepare interns for a broad range of law changing work through both direct client representation on novel issues and through advocacy for legal and policy change with official bodies in collaboration with activist groups, experts and lawyers. We choose our work based on what will constitute a multi-faceted learning experience for students and, in that context, on the needs of the human rights activists, the potential contribution of legal advocacy to movement building, and the effectiveness of particular strategies for immediate as well as longer-term social change. At the beginning of the year and, where appropriate the second semester, we present a list of ongoing cases and potential projects. While respecting ongoing commitments, we also prioritize based on student interest.

In keeping with the law reform orientation of IWHR, all interns have substantial opportunity to develop and refine strategic thinking, legal research, creative theory, and clear, persuasive writing skills. Our litigation permits students to engage in client interviewing and counseling, drafting legal documents, and presenting in court. Our international projects involve working with partners, as well as opportunities for presentation to or lobbying of international bodies or working with NGO colleagues in presentations and collective strategic decision-making. We include in skills classes, and where appropriate in ongoing work, training in media, preparing materials for different audiences, and mapping campaigns.


Classroom Component

The IWHR seminar meets twice weekly for a total of 6 hours per week and the time is divided between substantive learning and issues and lawyering skills.

First Semester

In the substantive component, the first semester develops the essential foundations of international law including through a critical and gender lens on foundational questions of international law: what constitutes legal authority in international law and how it is made, identification of the actors, including the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and how power is distributed, and what is/should be the relation between U.S. and international law. We generally examine developments in treaties with a focus on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Second Semester

The second semester looks critically at the relation of gender to the broader human rights frameworks encompassing political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights, and compares them to U.S. law. We explore particular issues, such as gender discrimination, sexual orientation and transgender identities, trafficking, and economic and social rights. Throughout the entire year, we address the potential and limitations of gender, intersectional and human rights approaches, multi-cultural issues and strategies for advancing international human rights in the U.S., as well as the relationship between legal and political strategies for social change.

Skills training is integrated into the IWHR seminar and reinforced through project work. Skills training includes international and domestic legal research, effective writing and editing, case planning, interviewing, client counseling, human rights documentation, testimony preparation, oral advocacy, multi-cultural and ethical issues arising in all contexts. To the extent possible, we utilize our on-going project work in the skills training so that students can learn from each other and about each other's work. Some classes involve observation and critical assessment of official UN or domestic judicial processes and others involve rounds where students present their work and seek the strategic input of clinic colleagues.


Clinic Graduates

The Clinic prepares students to work in a variety of legal environments and we encourage and prepare interns to engage human rights in domestic work in the United States. Although our work has an international focus, the skills learned here are important for all legal work and much of our work involves representing clients in U.S. courts. In addition to substantive human rights knowledge, former students emphasize the value of IWHR in honing their litigation and advocacy skills, and capacity to challenge injustice through creative, strategic thinking.

Our graduates work in a variety of capacities in national and international venues:

  • As judicial clerks in state courts, U.S., South African, and Australian federal courts, the Court of International Trade, and the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals (ICTY and ICTR);
  • UN Missions and in humanitarian relief projects the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice, the International Disability Rights Caucus;
  • International human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and MADRE.
  • Domestic legal advocacy and policy organizations, such as the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), National Advocates for Pregnant Women, National Institute for Reproductive Health, and DRUM-Desis Rising Up and Moving
  • In legal aid and legal services offices, plaintiff-side employment firms, and immigration firms and programs.
  • In grant-making institutions and public interest activities with bar associations.

Social Justice Mission

IWHR Clinic's social justice mission is two-fold:

  • To provide counsel and support to victims, activists and movements responsive to evolving demands for social justice addressing primarily gender and gender intersectional issues.

  • To graduate students with foundational knowledge of international law, well-honed change-oriented lawyering skills and sensitivity to their identity and role and to multi-cultural perspectives.
IWHR Clinic Presents at Hearing on Incarceration of Youth in Adult Prisons (Photo courtesy of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights)