Former Spicer Rudstrom Partner Begins Seventh Year Working with International Justice Mission

Shawn Kohl and Family_revised

When Shawn Kohl and his family packed up and moved to Cambodia in 2009, they had no idea the journey that working with the International Justice Mission (IJM) would take them on. Shawn, a former partner at Spicer Rudstrom PLLC, feels like he is doing what God created him to do, which is helping victims of violence in developing countries as their public justice systems emerge. Several countries in the developing world inherited colonial systems with the goal of controlling the population rather than serving it, similar to America’s system that has developed out of colonial British rule. Many of these countries are establishing themselves and developing a consistent law enforcement response in order to effectively prosecute the criminals behind these terrible acts. More than 17 years ago, he met his wife, Jenny, while both were serving in Peace Corps Senegal. When the opportunity to take his law career to a different level—that with IJM—presented itself, they both recalled the blessing they had received while working overseas and felt called to open the door on this next chapter of their life.

IJM is a global organization that protects the poor from violence in the developing world. Their team includes hundreds of lawyers, investigators, social workers, community activists, and other professionals at work through 17 field offices, who are inspired by God’s call to love all people and seek justice for the oppressed. They rescue victims, bring criminals to justice, restore survivors, and strengthen the legal process. IJM’s casework varies depending on the context and the nature of the highest rates of violence against the poor. The casework includes slavery, sex trafficking, sexual violence, police brutality, property grabbing, and citizens’ rights abuse. Shawn served as the Deputy Field Office Director in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, for more than two years, working on an anti-human trafficking program.

Since then, the Kohls have lived in Nairobi, Kenya; Kigali, Rwanda; and Kampala, Uganda, where they now call home. The move from Southeast Asia, which Shawn describes as “peaceful, calm and deferential to foreigners,” to East Africa had its challenges. “Kenya has very high crime rates—car jackings, home invasions, bus bombings, gun fights, and terrorism,” he explained. Living in Uganda is like living “somewhere between Cambodia and Kenya. It’s not as peaceful as Cambodia, but we don’t have the amount of crime that exists in Kenya. A driving factor to the rampant crime rates in Nairobi is a result of a culture of impunity for those police officers who abuse their power on a daily basis to extort money from those whom they are entrusted to serve.”

Shawn now serves as the National Director of Uganda, where he oversees two field offices in the country. His responsibilities include overseeing field offices, defining and executing a national strategy, expanding IJM’s footprint through partnerships, and working with partners, including the Judiciary, the Ugandan Police Force and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions. Some of the projects in the various field offices have included consultations, meetings, and partnerships with the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development, the European Union, and the United Nations. In Uganda, the focus of the project is the protection of widows and orphans from gender-based violence through direct casework from which multi-year programs are developed to sustainably address gaps in the public justice system. In a recent study by IJM, 40 percent of widows came under attack in one district in Uganda. Acts of violence include attempted murder by machete, setting fire to huts, and slashing crops, which is the sole source of income and, hence, the existence for many desperately poor subsistence farmers. IJM provides social workers and counselors to victims of violence, ensuring they are safe, receiving physical and psycho-social support, in addition to helping survivors develop income-generating strategies and activities.

He is also overseeing the completion of a multiple-year pilot program that provides direct services to clients including legal, investigative, and psycho-social support. The goal is twofold: first, to provide rescue, relief, and accountability in individual cases and second, to identify gap areas in the public justice system. Once the gap areas are identified, IJM partners with the local government and law enforcement to develop capacity so that prevalence rates of violence are significantly decreased. When the program started, 30 percent of widows had been victims of land theft with zero documented prosecutions.  However, this year alone, IJM has assisted in nine convictions, so Shawn is optimistic with the change they are already seeing.

Later this year, he will bring a delegation of judicial officials from Uganda to Nashville in an effort to share best practices around plea bargaining, case management and the application of sentencing guidelines. Currently, all cases in the magistrate courts in Uganda are tried, which has led to a major backlog, crippling the public justice system. The visit will include meetings with judges, the District Attorney’s office, lawyers, and law schools to share challenges and successes. This, he hopes, will allow for swifter decisions and the effective delivery of justice for victims of violence in Uganda.

When asked if he misses the practice of law in the U.S., Shawn said, “Yes. I miss being in court and arguing a case. But I can’t compare what I’m doing now with that. For me, this kind of work is in my DNA; my wife and I feel strongly that we have been called to this type of service.”

Shawn said that his work on behalf of IJM at now four international locations has, at times, been difficult but that his experience working as a partner for Spicer Rudstrom has been was invaluable to him in supporting IJM teams working in the public justice sector. Working at the firm allowed him to hone his legal skills by developing trial strategies and an appreciation of the law, as well as an understanding of the important role that the public justice system plays in society. Shawn believes Spicer Rudstrom’s culture of dedication to its clients is directly applicable to his efforts for those who need the assistance of IJM in the countries in which he works. “Sometimes, perseverance is a critical component of the work our teams provide for our clients – in many ways like that we owed to our clients at Spicer Rudstrom,” he said.

Shawn and Jenny have three daughters, ages 7 to 13. “My girls go to a school where 150 nationalities are represented. They are getting to see a good bit of the world and are getting a broad worldview. We miss our family back in Tennessee and all of the birthdays and holidays. But overall, I wouldn’t trade it. They get to experience something few do. They get to see poverty but that those same extremely impoverished people can also be very happy. My hope is that they will want to help others because they have been given a lot.”

Kampala, with nearly 2 million people, is a major metropolitan city with poor infrastructure and massive potholes—some up to one foot deep and two feet wide. Shawn explains that most people make at or below $1.25 a day, travel on foot, on mini buses (known as matatus), or on motorcycles.

A food he has come to enjoy is chapati, an African fried bread that is part of the cuisine in Uganda. Most meals consist of beans and rice or chicken and curry. His family also eats matoke, steam-cooked, mashed bananas. Because of a year-round tropical climate, two rainy seasons and fertile ground, fruit and vegetation is lush and plentiful. The Kohls have avocado, mango, lime, banana, and passion fruit trees growing in their backyard.

The availability of healthcare has been a concern for them since moving from the U.S. One of his daughters broke her arm when they were living in Cambodia. They had to fly to Thailand to have her arm set, which was done improperly. That meant a trip to Singapore to meet with a doctor who could provide more sophisticated care.

While on a recent furlough back home, the Kohls were able to enjoy activities that many of us take for granted, like roller-skating, going to a movie, and boating. “It was amazing—and refreshing—for us to be able to get into the water without having to worry about diseases or snails getting into your body through your feet and embedding themselves in your organs. We live near Lake Victoria, one of the African Great Lakes, and it’s absolutely beautiful. But you can’t get in it because of the likelihood of developing illnesses. So being able to do that while [home] was a great experience for us. My family has really supported us and treats us to all kinds of fun while we are at home. I owe a great to them and their generosity and support of our vocation.”

When asked what he would want people to know, Shawn responded with, “Become more aware of the work IJM does. Historically, money and the focus overseas have been on healthcare and education. The other components—the justice system and violence—need equal attention and funding. Everyday violence affects more people than terrorism, and there are 35 million slaves in the world. We need to push our leaders to eradicate an issue that was once a scourge in our own country. A functioning justice system is equally important and vital as education and medicine.”

To learn more about the work IJM is doing around the world, including in Uganda, and how you can get involved, visit www.ijm.org.