How a business trip launched a legal education recruitment program—and full scholarships—for disadvantaged rural women

Chuck Gastle '85By Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by Jeff Kirk

From the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Nexus

Chuck Gastle’s 2006 business trip to Cambodia turned out to be about much more than enacting intellectual property statutes and assisting the country to meet its World Trade Organization obligations.

On a visit to the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh, he and his wife Ruth met Marnie Ryan, an American “with a personality larger than life.” She told them about a program she started to assist young impoverished girls to attend the university.

They were conversing in a make-shift moot court room—and Gastle, LLB 1985, saw some of the students had moved in to live under the dais, so desperate were the girls to remain enrolled.

“On the spot, we sponsored a student. By the end of the day, it was two students. By the time I got to the airport, it was four students. By the time I got back to Toronto, it was five students. So that’s how CLEW started.”

CLEW is the Cambodian Legal Education for Woman fund that grew from that initial meeting. Gastle officially turned it into a charity in 2012, now co-chaired by Ruth. For high-achieving rural girls facing a futureless farming life, CLEW provides tuition, room and board, and a support network before and after graduation from Cambodia’s top four-year undergraduate law school.

“If you read the international development literature, it says: educate women. It all does,” says Gastle. “Why? Because the money stays in the family. But what they say is, get them into elementary school and into secondary school. It says nothing about university.”

CLEW connects with international charity Plan Cambodia, which refers rural girls to the scholarship program. Students must write their final high school exams, must be from a disadvantaged family (“If they have a steel roof, they don’t qualify”) and must go through an interview process as part of the criteria.

It costs about US$1200 per year to fund each student, and his firm Bennett Gastle pays all the administrative costs so that every dollar raised (from an annual dinner, a June golf tournament and online donations) funds the charity.

Bennett Gastle purchases computers, provides Internet access and pays an office salary in Cambodia, while a partnership with information-provider LexisNexis provided about 2,000 books and free databases for the law library.

“We’re making a difference, and if we can do this, what about other firms that are 100 times the size we are?” says Gastle.

CLEW has 26 alumni to date—but while the women receive law degrees, they are not lawyers. Firm partner and CLEW co-chair Elizabeth Bennett-Martin says it’s difficult to get licensed. CLEW is working on that.

“It’s not enough just to support them through university,” says Gastle. “Cambodia is a ‘who-you-know’ country.”

Gastle and Bennett-Martin however proudly list off their success stories: Rathana now works on land reform policies in what is effectively the Cabinet of the Cambodian government; Sopal works at a women’s shelter in Siem Reap, and shares her story to support recruitment; Champa helps farmers reclaim and register their land; and Sreynang is taking a course with the United Nations in Geneva, growing her skills to become a spokesperson for Cambodia’s Indigenous peoples.

Adds Gastle: “People say we’re giving back. That’s nonsense. We get far more out of it than we put into it. I haven’t got just three daughters—I have 46.”