Fernanda Hopenhaym is a Uruguayan/Mexican researcher and advocate who has been working on social, economic and gender justice issues with civil society organizations and social movements for 20 years. Fernanda specializes in business and human rights, and has been working on corporate accountability and financial issues for over ten years. She joined PODER, non-governmental, non-profit organization working to improve corporate transparency and accountability in Latin America from a human rights perspective,in early 2013 and is currently its Co-Executive Director. Under Fernanda’s leadership, PODER has become a member of the facilitation group of the Treaty Alliance, a founding member of the Feminists4BindingTreaty initiative, part of the Steering Committee of the Corporate Accountability Working Group at ESCR-Net, and an advisor for the Corporate Capture Project.
Fernanda has been a presenter and facilitator in several national and international events, including the UN Business and Human Rights Forum and the Regional Consultations on BHR in Latin America. She was part of the planning committee of the People’s Forum on Business and Human Rights in the Philippines in 2018. She was elected by members for the Board of Directors of ESCR-Net – the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that connects over 280 NGOs, social movements and advocates across more than 75 countries to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all – for the period of 2019-2021, and was appointed as Chair in April 2019. She is a member of the faculty of the Instituto de Liderazgo Simone de Beauvoir (Mexico) and holds a B.A. in Sociology from Universidad Católica del Uruguay, and an M.A. in Latin American Studies from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Some of her publications are: Deber cumplido, objetivo perdido (el NAP en México), Revista Nueva Sociedad, Argentina, 2017; Las personas defensoras de derechos humanos en el contexto del Plan Nacional de Acción sobre Empresas y Derechos Humanos en México in Cantú, H (coord), Los derechos humanos y las empresas: reflexiones desde América Latina, IIDH, Costa Rica, 2017. (coauthor); Women, business and human rights: working towards a Binding Treaty with a gender perspective, Business and Human Rights Resource Center, 2018. Follow Fernanda on @fernanda_ho where she tweets in Spanish and English.
Fernanda Hopenhaym was profiled for ATLAS by Marlena Wisniak, a business and human rights lawyer working at the intersection of gender justice, corporate accountability and international human rights. Read more about Marlena's career at the end of the profile, and follow her on @marle_wi where she tweets about the latest business and human rights news.
What drew you towards human rights law as a career? And what were your first steps?
It has much to do with my family’s history. I was born in Uruguay in the middle of a dictatorship. My older sisters had all been detained and had to go into exile, because as students, they were involved in the socialist movement. I grew up without seeing my sisters until the age of ten. From the beginning, this marked me, especially since I didn’t quite understand why my sisters were gone and were not able to come back and visit. I was therefore affected by human rights issues from a very young age, growing up in Uruguay, a small country where most people don’t acknowledge that racism and inequalities are very present. But the truth is that the Afro-Uruguayan population is still the most vulnerable, poor and discriminated, and I grew up observing all of that.
Later, as a young Jewish woman, I traveled to Israel and Palestine and it was an absolutely eye-opening experience. I felt I didn’t have enough tools to truly understand what was happening. To me, at the age of 17, this conflict was insane and made no sense – yet I needed to make sense of it, somehow. That’s when I decided to dedicate my career to human rights. When I started college, I joined the student socialist movement and got in touch with feminist studies. I started to call myself a feminist. I then did an externship (“prácticas profesionales”) at an NGO in Uruguay where I got hired immediately afterwards as a research assistant, and ended up staying for a couple of years. Throughout my work there, I also learned a lot about the UN system.
I later moved to Mexico City to study a Masters in Latin American studies at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). I finally understood more fully the history of this continent and Mexico opened a new universe to me. I learned a lot from connecting with indigenous peoples and local communities, and studying the history and culture of Latin America.
What have been the high points of your career thus far?
A first marking point was starting to work on economic rights and financial issues. I was at the non-profit AWID, an international, feminist, membership organisation committed to achieving gender equality, sustainable development and women's human rights,for 5 years. It was there that I became fascinated by economic justice. This was my entry point into the field of corporate accountability. I started studying corporations and financial institutions, and found a topic within the broader human rights framework that I wanted to focus on. I approached corporate accountability through a feminist lens.
A second important moment in my career was joining PODER, which I currently co-lead. It’s truly the best place I’ve ever worked at. Its culture, teamwork, and profound political and ethical commitment are really impressive. I learn a lot from Ben Cokelet, PODER’s founder and my co-executive director, who is an amazing professional partner. We have a great working dynamic, we have deep respect for each other and mutually value our talents. This hadn’t been my experience with male partners in the past. We’re both very aware of our privilege, and know how to use it properly. We are also very mindful of the gender dynamics that could arise between us, internally and with external actors that are used to promote “patriarchal pacts”, and always work to dismantle that. It’s great to be a feminist at a mixed organization.
Third, starting projects or facilitating processes from a feminist perspective is something I’m very proud of. One initiative that stood out is the Feminists4BindingTreaty group. My friend Alejandra Scampini, currently working with me at PODER and back then-AWID staff member, and I were together at the 3rdsession of the OHCHR on business and human rights. A few feminist groups were present, but we were not really articulated and no strong voice brought a feminist perspective to the discussions. It was a very cold night, so we went out for fondue and hot wine! As two feminists, we discussed how we could articulate this vision in the context of the binding treaty. The next day, we shared this idea with a few other women, and soon after that, we were already an articulated group: the Feminists4BindingTreaty. Today, the campaign has grown a lot, and includes over 40 members and diverse leaderships.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced and how have you tackled them?
One of the challenges I’m frequently faced with is not being a lawyer. I work on many legal and public policy issues both in Mexico and globally, such as promoting human rights due diligence laws or the UN legally binding treaty on business and human rights, and engaging with the Inter-American system on these issues. At PODER, we also conduct strategic litigation and have a legal committee with different team members. I feel challenged when having to make decisions about legal strategy, but I enjoy it too, and have learned a lot along the years. I draw on my own expertise in other disciplines, and I always say that I’m not a lawyer upfront. I have legal experts who advise me, and I bring my own political perspective to the table. It’s a team effort.
Of course, when working on corporate accountability, economy and finance, I often find myself – especially 10 years ago – to be one of the few woman talking about these issues. This has changed over the years, but many spaces, especially decision-making bodies in these matters, are mostly directed by men. Last year for example, G20 was in Argentina, and there was a civil society working group on financial architecture. It was led by two men who weren’t very inclusive and few women were involved. Today, men won’t openly exclude us but it’s still difficult to enter these circles and, in particular, to exercise leadership within them. Topics such as financial flows, ‘follow the money’, bank secrecy and beneficial ownership are still very male-dominated. I’m one of the few women in many of these spaces, which is difficult. I study a lot, and always know what my strengths are, and where I have less expertise. Whenever I participate in such events, I make sure to focus on topics I excel in and to dismantle prejudices.
Do you have any advice for those, especially women, who are embarking on a human rights career?
Bring your feminism wherever you go, even when you’re talking about a certain topic that may seem unrelated. As a very simple example, I was in Argentina for an event where we would be talking about business and human rights; I was formally dressed but wore a green handkerchief in support of the legalization of abortion, as the vote was taking place two days later. In any opportunity you have, make a statement. Care about the feminist agenda and show solidarity.
Wherever I’m in a position of power, I try to bring more women and other identities to the table. PODER’s board of directors, for example, has five women and one man. When I organize a panel or speaking events, I make sure to invite women, with an emphasis on younger women. It’s critical to share opportunities with other women and to promote diversity, really walking the talk. So “pégate a otras mujeres” (stick to women!).
Your role models should be women; try to avoid following patriarchal behaviors. Don’t praise men only because they’re in a position of power, but try to find true leaders in the field who will open a door for you – and if you are a woman, these leaders will most likely be women. Be aware of your privilege, but also of the oppression you will suffer. Study a lot.
Find your passion, but don’t be in a rush to find it either– you’ll find something that will drive you eventually.
And finally, be in touch with affected communities. International law is supposed to benefit people on the ground; it’s not just an abstract concept. Go to communities, and run away from humanitarian tourism. Get involved; be on the ground.
Fernanda was profiled for ATLAS by Marlena Wisniak,a business and human rights lawyer working at the intersection of gender justice, corporate accountability and international human rights. Marlena has over five years' work experience in the private, public, academic and non-profit sector. She currently holds the position of Civil Society Manager at Partnership on AI, a non-profit organization based in San Francisco, USA. Marlena’s most recent research and advocacy has focused on the human rights impacts of technology companies, which she approaches through a feminist and business and human rights lens. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a law degree (J.D.) from the University of Geneva, and a Master’s of Law degree (LL.M) from Stanford Law School. Follow Marlena on @marle_wi where she tweets about the latest business and human rights news.