By Sonia Corrêa*
Rhonda Copelon was an intellectual leader and pioneer in the field of sexual and reproductive rights. But most importantly she was a dear close friend of many of us. Throughout my trajectory in this field I have heard many stories told by Rosalind Petchesky about their joint early struggles for abortion in the 1970’s and the creation of CARASA. From other feminist friends, I have learned of her battles in Vienna and to defend the rights of women living under Muslim laws.
I first met Rhonda in April 1993, when a group of feminist from both developed and developing countries met in New York to scramble through the very first draft prepared by UNFPA for the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo 1994), trying to make of it a meaningful piece of writing. Rhonda was just emerging from the battles for women’s rights as human rights, in the International Conference on Human Rights of Vienna, where language has been adopted on rape as a human rights violation. In New York, and the subsequent negotiations leading towards the final Cairo agreements, she was one of those amongst us who insistently proposed the inclusion of “sexual” in all sections of the text where reproductive rights were addressed.
As it is widely known, the term “sexual” did not survive the Cairo negotiations. But it would quickly resuscitate a year later in the Beijing World Conference on Women, when language was adopted defining human rights of women in the realm of sexuality (paragraph 96), which is at the very origin of our complex and plural conversations on sexual rights.
I have seen Rhonda in New York, last March. Despite all the energy she had been spending the last few months, she was the same cheerful, curious and loving Rhonda I have known for so many years. After a party commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, with Anita Nayar and another friend of Rhonda, we have walked together in a cold autumn night and said goodbye at the corner of Second Avenue and 42th Street.
Rhonda, we will miss you.
Sonia Corrêa is co-chair of the Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW).
> Rhonda Copelon, Lawyer in Groundbreaking Rights Cases, Dies at 65 (The New York Times)
> Remembering Rhonda Copelon: Sept. 15, 1944—May 6, 2010 (Meredith’s Tax Blog)
> In Memoriam: Professor Rhonda Copelon (Cuny School of Law)