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Spotlight: UCLA Law - Sonke Health & Human Rights Fellowship

Cheri Sanger

Nomonde Nyembe and Cheri Sanger, two young lawyers from South Africa, arrived at UCLA two months ago as the first fellows of the new UCLA Law - Sonke Health & Human Rights Fellowship program. The program was created to encourage young lawyers from top graduate schools in South Africa to train for careers as impact-oriented public interest lawyers in the areas of health, human rights, HIV prevention, and gender equality.

Sonke Gender Justice Network is recognized internationally for its pioneering work that supports men and boys to promote gender equality, prevent gender-based violence, and reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS across Africa.

Nomonde Nyembe

According to Sonke, in 2007, South Africa had 5.7million people living with HIV - the largest number in the world. The country also had one of the highest levels of domestic violence and rape. Gender inequality led not only to violence but also to the rapid spread of HIV, especially in young women coerced into sex.

“South Africa is a vibrant constitutional democracy but its high HIV prevalence rate and high levels of sexual violence are dangerous,” says Lara Stemple, JD, co-director of the fellowship and deputy co-director of the UCGHI Women’s Health & Empowerment Center of Expertise. “Sonke asserts that masculinity norms are driving a lot of the problem. South Africa has lots of great laws on the books, but it’s a question of how to use those laws as tools for social change.”

As a requirement of the fellowship, Nyembe and Sanger will head back to South Africa and work for Sonke for at least a year upon completion of their UCLA degree. Stemple sees the fellowship as an opportunity for UCLA to contribute to sustainable change in South Africa.

“To create long-term change, it has to be about supporting local capacity,” says Stemple. “I think UCLA has something to contribute. Our goal is to motivate and train skilled local lawyers to launch public interest careers.”

Sanger comes to the fellowship with more than six years of legal experience post graduation, having already done work on violence against women, including domestic violence, sexual violence and more recently hate crimes against lesbians and bisexual women. She has also taught a coursefor Legal Education and Development to candidate attorneys in South Africa on Aspects of Gender Law.

“I applied for the Sonke - UCLA program to further develop my skills as a public interest lawyer,” says Sanger. “I intend on taking these advanced skills back to South Africa and use them to advance Sonke’s core mandate to reduce gender based violence and HIV and the impact of AIDS.”

Nyembe, who received her law degree in 2008, says “I’ve always been interested in women’s rights and sexuality and how it’s perceived and how it’s changing in South Africa. The fact that the fellowship was being granted by Sonke, an organization that takes a male involvement approach to gender equality, is unusual.”

UCLA provides the fellows a full-tuition grant to enroll in its Law's Master of Laws (LL.M.) program (tuition currently costs $52,500 a year), and the Ford Foundation is providing funds for living and travel expenses.

The fellows also take a course in global health and work across disciplines through the Center of Expertise on Women’s Health and Empowerment. Because of the COE’s interdisciplinary approach and links with health sciences, it’s a good opportunity for the fellows and links them to a community of academics and fellow activists, says Stemple.

“The fellowship allows me to take a course on public health, which is not something we get in our law training,” says Sanger. “It helps me deepen my understanding of HIV/AIDS, which is very relevant to my work on gender-based violence.”