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Advocate Spotlight: María Luján Abramo

Luján Abramo is part of the Food Policy Program (FPP) at Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) and supports the legal team by providing technical legal assistance to local partners and helping navigate how the law can be a powerful tool to make food environments healthy, fair and more nutritious. She is also part of FPP’s Industry Watch initiative, which aims to prevent, counter and mitigate interference in policymaking and corporate capture in food systems coming from the ultra-processed product industry and their allies that happen at global, regional, national and subnational levels, putting profits and economic/commercial interests over planetary and human health. Luján is a global health lawyer and received her law degree from the National University of Córdoba, Argentina and her Global Health LLM Georgetown University.

1. How did you get involved in public health?

It was a journey. I have always been interested in human rights law, and how the international human rights legal framework offers enormous opportunities to advance the most essential aspects of life. During high school and while working on my law degree, I volunteered with organizations whose missions were to advance different human rights such as the right to vote, education, and the right to access health services and goods. In this regard, the right to health is a basic and fundamental right and is intertwined with multiple areas of law, so it is hard for me to imagine people enjoying or exercising any other right without their right to health fully promoted and protected, and the pandemic was clear evidence of this.

Public health puts a collective lens on the right to health to support policies that advance health at a societal level, putting the common good at the front, so this was an area I was completely interested in. Therefore, I jumped into this world supporting the legal FPP team, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids with legislation and case law analysis for the tobacco control database, and the Road Safety team at GHAI. These initial experiences related to health law and policy advocacy confirmed public health as an area in which I wanted to grow and contribute.

2. Why is it important to have lawyers involved in policy advocacy campaigns?

The law is a powerful (and complex) tool for policy change, and it impacts advocacy at multiple levels. Legal work is an essential element of any advocacy campaign, and lawyers are the ones who assist at all stages of policy design, implementation and monitoring. From knowing the right legal pathway that needs to be followed, preparing legal landscapes and analysis, understanding who has the authority to act, translating the best scientific evidence into legal standards that support the design of an effective public policy, leveraging international opportunities and even creating strategic litigation that facilitates social, political and legal changes are some of the tasks that are included into advocacy strategies. Lawyers and advocates must always work hand in hand to coordinate these efforts and ensure success.

3. What is the biggest legal/advocacy challenge you have faced in this work (and how did it get resolved)?

Drafting the COVID-19 report called “Facing Two Pandemics: How Big Food Undermined Public Health in the Era of COVID-19” was one of those global advocacy projects that kept me awake at night. It was the first time that we were publicly talking to the public – and to governments – about how the ultra-processed product industry constantly threatens public health with its corporate social responsibility actions, its marketing practices, and its donations of unhealthy foods, among others. But we were doing this while the world was undergoing a pandemic – a health, economic, social and political crisis at a global scale that aggravated situations of food insecurity and put people living with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) at greater risk – so we had to be very careful about how to put the message out there while also calling for governments to act. There was no magic recipe to solve it: it was a collaborative and coordinated work by the amazing multidisciplinary team that is part of the FPP at GHAI. This was our first step to start keeping this industry accountable (and we still have a long way to go!).

4. What is something people do not know about you?

After I finished my law degree, I took some years off from the legal profession to travel. I backpacked through Australia, New Zealand and many Asian and Latin American countries while working and volunteering. I had all kinds of jobs, joining a rural school in Vietnam to assist with general tasks and teach English, spending a summer in Recife, Brazil supporting a small NGO that hosted girls and had the mission to support them until they finished secondary school, working in small farms and restaurants. There are so many lessons learned from these experiences that it’s impossible to list them, but these are all a key part of what I am today, both personally and professionally. Along this journey I met so many amazing, diverse, and grateful people and I always think about them and their communities when trying to advocate for food policies that are intended to make the world a healthier place and have a positive impact in food environments.