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Activists team up with ABA to provide law school scholarships for women in Congo

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Amanda Jones is a well-traveled writer and photographer who doesn’t shock easily. But a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013 left a deep impression on her when she witnessed firsthand the horrific effects of sexual violence against women that have plagued the conflict-ridden country for about two decades.

Jones was visiting Congo with a group of female philanthropists, there to mark One Billion Rising, playwright Eve Ensler’s worldwide project to end violence against women. But any celebratory tone to the trip was undercut when Jones met 8-year-old Cynthia, a child of rape whose mother had been held captive and sexually violated daily over a two-year period. In desperation, her mother tried to kill the girl five times during her first six years of life. “It amazed me that this child could be so resilient and still so loving,” Jones says. “It was hard not to fall completely in love with her.”

Coming home “still feeling shattered” by the terrible stories of violence she heard and the evidence of brutality she witnessed, Jones was “determined to help in whatever small way I could. Cynthia gave me hope that the DRC had a future, one where women and girls who had experienced the worst things one can imagine could pick themselves up and move on,” she says.

Jones was soon talking to Jennifer Chapin, her longtime friend and fellow activist in the San Francisco Bay Area, about her experience. “It was Cynthia who made us realize we had to do something,” says Chapin, a business and social entrepreneur. They began hatching a plan on a flight to New Orleans, where they were gathering with a group of friends to celebrate Chapin’s birthday by volunteering to rebuild houses by day in neighborhoods still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. They’d continue the celebration by going out to music clubs at night.

“Jen asked me: ‘What program did you see there that needs the most help?’ ” says Jones, who was ready with an answer. She said they should marshal support for the Legal Scholarship Fund for Congolese Women sponsored by the ABA Rule of Law Initiative, a project initiated in 2011 by a private donor. Jones first saw ABA ROLI’s work in Congo and learned about the scholarship program when representatives from Human Rights Watch took the visiting philanthropists to meet ABA ROLI staff members and some female law students who traveled for two days to meet them. “They were so grateful and so gracious that it moved me to tears,” Jones says.

ABA ROLI has 52 professional staff and 10 support personnel who work in Congo. All of these personnel are Congolese nationals, except for the country director, who’s from Cameroon, and the finance manager, who’s from Ivory Coast.


Thinking about where she and Chapin could best apply their efforts, Jones says, it seemed to be that the ABA ROLI scholarship program “was the only program I had seen that was not funding triage. It had the potential to change a nation, merely by getting more women lawyers into school.” When they returned from New Orleans, they invited some friends to Chapin’s house and gave a little talk, Jones says. “We raised around $30,000 that night, and we were on our way.”

The project was given the name Cynthia’s Sisters, and its sole focus is to raise money to fund law school scholarships for young women in Congo in partnership with the ABA ROLI Legal Scholarship Fund for Congolese Women. Only 13 percent of lawyers in Congo are women, says Elizabeth Andersen, director of ROLI and an associate executive director of the ABA. Many people who work in the field think empowering women as lawyers and leaders will supporttheir proactive efforts in helping stop the violence against women and give them hope that justice will be done to those who commit the crimes.

The total cost for an individual legal education in Congo is $7,000, and all the money raised by Cynthia’s Sisters, which comes from individual donors and foundations, goes directly to the scholarship fund, Andersen says. The scholarships cover four years of the five-year program that leads to a law degree, including tuition, course materials, laptops, library fees, admission to the local bar and externship stipends. The young women are selected based on academic performance and on their commitment to fight for women’s rights and empowerment in Congo, she emphasizes.

To date, the scholarship program has raised $309,000 and is allowing 50 young women to attend law school. With support from Cynthia’s Sisters in the past few years, “we have tripled the number of law students receiving ABA ROLI scholarships,” Andersen says.

Nevertheless, the project faces a daunting challenge. Although Congo has vast natural resources, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, largely because various militias, rebel groups, businessmen and even the army compete for control of that mineral wealth, according to many experts who also describe Congo as one of the most dangerous places in the world for women. Exact figures for the numbers of rapes and other violent acts against women are hard to tally. But Michael Maya, the former deputy director of ABA ROLI, wrote in a 2011 article that the scale of Congo’s epidemic of rape, which he said is used as “a weapon of war,” is “arguably without rival in modern history.”

The article, which can be accessed on the ABA ROLI website, also notes that the United Nations has estimated that about 500,000 victims have been raped or subjected to sexual violence in Congo, especially in its eastern area, since 1996. A 2010 article in the American Journal of Public Health presented more chilling figures, reporting that 1.69 million to 1.8 million Congolese women reported having been raped in their lifetimes.

The scholarship program is one part of the ABA’s extensive rule of law programs in Congo, where staff members work with judges, prosecutors and civil society organizations on a wide range of reform efforts, Andersen says. “But this scholarship program fills us with particular pride and hope, as it is making a lasting investment in change agents of the future,” she says.


ABA President Linda A. Klein of Atlanta applauds the Congolese scholarship program “for planting the seeds for a better future for the country.” She notes that, as similar ABA ROLI programs to promote justice, economic opportunity and human dignity are taking place in about 100 countries, the scholarship program in Congo reaches “a corner of the world where empowering and supporting female lawyers can help curb violence and bring about peaceful communities.”

The Schmidt Family Foundation’s 11th Hour Project supports the administrative costs associated with running the scholarship program in Congo. The ABA ROLI team in Congo “plays an incredibly important role in ensuring that each and every scholarship winner gets the most out of her experience,” says Maria Koulouris, program director of the 11th Hour Project. “They are uniquely positioned not only to mentor these talented young women during their studies but also to help them navigate the opportunities they have to use their higher education for the betterment of society.”

A new benefit to the scholarship program—also sponsored by the foundation—is post-graduate fellowship opportunities in which new lawyers are placed in jobs in local civil organizations, such as legal aid clinics, to develop their lawyering skills.

And recently, Cynthia’s Sisters announced that it is beginning a new Lawyer-to-Lawyer Program, challenging U.S. law firms to underwrite the cost of just one student, Chapin says. As for the future of Cynthia’s Sisters, it hopes to help ABA ROLI spread the program to other countries.

Chapin and Jones say it is rewarding to see the fruits of their labor. Two scholarship recipients, Rita Salama Rubayi and Kelly Buhendwa Shukrani, traveled from Congo to the 2016 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, where they attended a reception for Cynthia’s Sisters and thanked their supporters. Andersen says the young women talked about what a difference the program has made in their lives and their communities, speaking “in personal terms about the very real limitations in their families and their communities to pursue their ambitions.” The women also discussed the scourge of sexual violence in their country, Andersen says, which motivates them to develop the legal tools to help reduce it.

Cynthia’s Sisters is a “passion project,” says Chapin, and Jones agrees. “I have two daughters, and the luck that they were born into is something I wanted them to grow up appreciating,” Jones says. “I truly believe that the next step for the world is to have more women in positions of power.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Strength in Sisters: Activists from the Bay Area team up with the ABA to provide funding for women who attend law school in the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo."

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