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June 06, 2017

Building the Rule of Law One Lawyer at a Time

Director, ABA Rule of Law Initiative

The 2016 ABA Annual Meeting featured a number of ABA ROLI gatherings and events, including our annual Rule of Law Luncheon and the presentation of the first-ever ABA International Human Rights Award, a collaboration between ABA ROLI and the Section of International Law, the Section of Litigation, the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and the Center for Human Rights. As I highlighted in last month’s column, the Luncheon celebrated pro bono contributions to ABA ROLI programs, featuring two “ABA ROLI Pro Bono Champions,” as well as a stimulating keynote conversation with California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar. Video and a photo album are available here.

But the ABA ROLI Annual Meeting activity that I want to highlight this month is the very special reception we held with Cynthia’s Sisters--a Bay Area group of ROLI supporters--to raise awareness of an ABA ROLI program in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that aims to expand the number of female lawyers in the country by providing law school scholarships, mentorship and internship opportunities to young women. Two of the scholars, Rita Salama Rubayi and Kelly Buhendwa Shukrani, traveled to San Francisco from the DRC to attend the ABA Annual Meeting, learn about the U.S. legal system and help us say “thank you” to their supporters. At the reception, Rita and Kelly told those gathered that in their communities, it is usually the boys who get to seek higher education. Until they heard about the ABA scholarships, they did not think that they could aspire to become lawyers. Now, as we heard in San Francisco, they are well on the path to becoming future legal leaders in their country.

From an initial handful of scholarships supported by an individual philanthropist, the DRC legal scholarship program has grown exponentially thanks to an initiative begun by a group of Bay Area women who several years ago became concerned about the prevalence of sexual violence in the DRC, learned about the work that the ABA was doing to represent victims there, and decided that one part of the strategy should be to increase the number of women lawyers to represent victims and more generally play a leadership role in the country. They dubbed themselves “Cynthia’s Sisters,” for the daughter of a victim of sexual violence, and partnered with ABA ROLI to develop the scholarship program. To date, almost $300,000 has been raised and 30 young women sent to law school. Recently, the program has been expanded to provide post-graduate fellowship opportunities for women legal scholars, to help them get that critical first professional experience to launch their careers. Just $7000 covers the costs of four years of a young woman’s legal education in the DRC, with ongoing support and mentoring to committed Congolese attorneys who work with ABA ROLI’s access to justice programs. In a new Lawyer to Lawyer program, Cynthia’s Sisters is challenging law firms across the United States to underwrite the cost of just one such student.

The Cynthia’s Sisters motto--One woman. One lawyer. One leader at a time.--is a useful reminder of the critical role that individuals play in advancing the rule of law. Even broad systemic reform is often the brainchild of a single committed legal professional. At ABA ROLI, it is our mission and privilege to find those lawyers and support their critical change-making work. This year’s ABA Annual Meeting highlighted the many ways in which we do so.

Director, ABA Rule of Law Initiative