An African Queen

Cynthia Plevin works on behalf of Burundi’s women and children

Published in 2007 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2007

Cynthia Plevin’s pro bono work in central Africa in 2004 was worlds away from her workday life.

Plevin, 56, traveled to Burundi twice that year as part of a team sponsored by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized agency of the United Nations dedicated to eradicating rural poverty in developing countries.

A labor law specialist and partner at Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold, Plevin’s role on the Burundi project was to help strengthen the country’s system of governance to provide civil justice and effective civil dispute resolution to the rural poor, particularly women and street children who are neglected in Burundi’s patriarchal society.

“It was an intense team collaboration that was very gratifying,” she says of her field work. “I loved every second of it.” Plevin traveled to Africa prior to her pro bono missions and had already developed a love for the country and a deep respect for its people. “The work had absolutely no relationship to what I do for my ‘day job,’” she says. “I told [IFAD] that if there were issues regarding restructuring labor laws, I’d be happy to address them. But it’s actually much more fun to do something different.”

Besides creating a program to educate rural women about their rights and responsibilities, Plevin interviewed and exchanged ideas with the groups of elders in each community who handle disputes and operate as a local mediation system. These elders are known as Bashingantahe. She spent four weeks in Burundi on her first trip in 2004 and another three weeks later that year, followed by a week at IFAD headquarters in Rome to complete reports.

Plevin says she was pleasantly surprised that the Bashingantahe were mostly receptive to proposed changes that would enhance the rights of women and children in their communities. “I expected pushback from the Bashingantahe because what we proposed would dilute their authority, but they didn’t look at it that way,” she says. “They liked the idea of not being marginalized and instead being a contributing factor in shaping the future system.”

The project has a long way to go. Like neighboring Rwanda, Burundi has been plagued by internal conflict between factions of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Violence throughout the 1990s killed up to 100,000 people and nearly 1 million more fled the country. Half of the 8 million people who live there now are age 16 or younger.

Plevin says more projects have been proposed in the country and she’s eager to take part in them. “It was difficult to leave and I miss working with the people,” she says. “The impact that you feel from your day job feels much less significant than when you’re working on a project that has implications for many, many people.”  

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