Friday, 2 May 2008

Margaret Ryan helps Cambodia’s young women become lawyers.

HEAD OF THE CLASS: Ryan awards scholarships based on girls’ academic ability, maturity and desire to help their rural communities.
Heng Chivoan

Lady Justice
BY Corinne Purtill

Phallikol Phok is a slender girl who looks far younger than her 19 years. She grew up in a one-room wooden stilt house in Cambodia’s Kompong Cham province with her parents and six siblings.

Unlike her parents, and theirs before them, Phok will not spend her adult life tilling the rice and tobacco fields near her home. She is a student at Cambodia’s premier law school, the Royal University of Law and Economics, thanks to her outstanding grades at the provincial school—and to Margaret Ryan, JD ’71.

Phok’s tuition, housing and spending money come from Girls RULE, a scholarship program for female students named for the university’s acronym. Ryan, 61, established the program in 2006, largely with donations from Stanford Law School classmates. Girls RULE awarded nine scholarships in its first two years and plans to grant at least five this fall.

Phok’s scholarship allows her to complete RULE’s undergraduate curriculum, which will enable her to practice law. “Then when I know a lot, I can give the knowledge that I have to all the people,” she says, in careful English.

Indeed, Ryan hopes Girls RULE beneficiaries will return to their roots, bridging the gap between rural communities and an often unfamiliar legal system. Running the scholarship program is the latest twist in a long career that has taken her from the courtrooms of San Francisco to the classrooms of a struggling Southeast Asian nation.

After receiving her law degree from Stanford, Ryan worked in San Francisco on family law, criminal defense, juvenile law and civil rights cases. She represented defendants in several high-profile cases, such as Black Panther Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt and those arrested in the White Night Riots that followed the sentencing of Dan White, who killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk.

By the mid-1990s, Ryan was burned out. Even after an 18-month stay on a horse farm in rural Ireland, she couldn’t shake the feeling that there must be more to life. Then, in 1995, a friend offered her a job with a USAID program to develop an English-language law curriculum in Cambodia.

Cambodia was—and still is—recovering from the Khmer Rouge, the brutal ultra-Maoist guerrillas who ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. Roughly 1.7 million Cambodians died during that time from execution, starvation and disease.

Education also was one of the regime’s casualties. The Khmer Rouge abolished schools and executed many professors and intellectuals. The Royal University of Law and Economics was shuttered, and its buildings stood empty until 1982. According to university archives, only six licensed attorneys remained alive in Cambodia at the end of the Khmer Rouge.

Ryan arrived in Phnom Penh for what she expected would be a temporary visit—she even left her car in long-term parking at San Francisco International, she recalls. But she found that she loved the students and her work. When the USAID program lost funding in 1997, she started teaching pro bono at RULE, working consulting jobs to supplement her income. “I thought it was really important to stay and work for basic legal education,” she says.

By that time, she realized she had found her home. She’d also found love, with a Khmer-American man named Ford Thai. Ryan runs the alternative-energy firm Khmer Solar with him, in addition to teaching at RULE.

The idea for Girls RULE came to Ryan on a 2006 field trip with students to rural provinces to study the effects of domestic violence laws. There was a problem: laws notwithstanding, women who wanted to press charges against or divorce their abusive husbands had no idea where to turn. Similarly, victims of illegal land-grabs, rampant in the countryside, did not know how to seek redress. Villagers “don’t even know someone who knows someone they can call for an explanation,” she says.

Ryan contacted her network of Stanford classmates, five of whom pledged $4,000 each. Tuition, housing and spending money for one year costs $1,000 per student. Each girl also gets a secondhand bicycle and helmet to get around Phnom Penh’s busy streets.

Cambodian education is “a very weak system” that often pushes girls aside, says American attorney Patricia Baars, who arrived in Cambodia in 1996 and now advises the government in addition to teaching law. “Getting some women educated is going to make a huge difference.” Ryan will encourage the students to seek further schooling abroad.

Girls RULE “is an amazing story of someone who just kept pushing to help this many young women who would otherwise have never seen a law school,” Baars says. “These kids are going to remember her for the rest of their lives.”

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