Karen Atala (left) and her partner Emma de Ramon

A Chilean lesbian woman is fighting to regain custody of her children in a ground-breaking case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Karen Atala Riffo, a judge and mother, was stripped of custody of her two daughters by the Supreme Court of Chile in 2003 after her ex-husband sued for custody, admitting that he did so out of revenge.

Atala, who won in lower court decisions, lost custody of her children when the High Court ruled that she was an unfit mother on the basis of her sexual orientation.

The Chilean Supreme Court ruled that, “[the children] would suffer psychological harm living with Ms. Atala and her [female] partner…[and that] they would become confused about gender roles and suffer from discrimination and isolation”.

Atala has now sought justice through the Inter-American Human Rights System. The case was heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is expected to issue a legally binding decision that the government of Chile has agreed to abide.

“What happened to Karen Atala represents discrimination of the crudest sort. For no reason other than her sexuality, a court separated a mother from her children,” said Jessica Stern, Director of Programs for International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), on Wednesday.

This case is the first time the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ever heard a case specifically regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The Inter-American Court of Human Rights now has an opportunity to render a decision that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong,” said Stern. “Such a verdict will send a message to every state party to the American Convention on Human Rights that sexual orientation has no bearing on a parent’s ability to raise healthy children.”

Lisa Davis, Adj. Professor of Law for the IWHR Clinic at CUNY Law School, said: “Perversely, Atala is recognised as fit to uphold the highest principles of justice as a judge, and yet the Supreme Court found that she is not fit to carry out the duties of a mother. Indeed, Chile makes no attempt to deny that its action was on the basis of Ms. Atala’s sexual orientation.”

It is unclear when the court will issue its ruling.

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