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Human Rights Defender of the month: Jane Naini Meriwas

Like many African societies, The Samburu community in Northern Kenya is a gerontocracy – a very hierarchical community in which elders hold sway over almost all private and public matters. Among these predominantly pastoral nomads, very little importance is attached to the young – especially young girls, who are barely given a chance at education and often married off before their first menstrual cycle, but not before they undergo mandatory Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

It is in this community that Jane Naini Meriwas was born 46 years ago, in Kipsing village,  Oldonyiro Subcounty, Isiolo County. When she was 16, her mother passed on, and she watched with great trepidation as her father planned to marry another wife, not sure what that would mean for her or her ambitions for school. As it turned out, fate was on her side. When her father uncharacteristically asked what she thought of his

“I told him that if he wants to go ahead and remarry, he should give me my mother’s share of livestock to support my education since I know I would have no one looking out for me going forward,” says Meriwas.

Simultaneously shocked and touched by his daughter’s candidness, Meriwas’ father decided to give the idea of remarrying more thought. By the time Meriwas returned home at the end of the school term, she found that her father had abandoned the idea altogether, and decided to support her to finish school.

“I was surprised and elated in equal measure. It also encouraged me to always be confident and speak my mind, assured that I had a father who would always listen to me,” she says.

At University, Meriwas studied Community Development, after which she worked with a catholic mission in her community. But her passion to empower more women in her community would not let her rest.   

“Issues like FGM, girl child beading, forceful abortion, early marriages, wife beating, were still holding my community back and I could not just pursue a personal career and pretend everything was right. I had to do something,” she says.

Meriwas teamed up with five other women, with whom they would every month, organise groups of women and sensitise them to resist and push back against these harmful cultural practices. Overtime, they also started engaging with men, encouraging them to educate girl children, using Meriwas’ father as an example. Won over by his daughter’s dedication, Meriwas’ father would tag along to some of these meetings, to testify on the benefits of educating a girl-child.

“From a reluctant patriarchal man, he had become a champion of girl-child empowerment,” says Meriwas.

Encouraged by the growing consciousness and awareness her and her colleagues’ efforts were igniting in her community, Meriwas, in 2006 resigned her formal job to start Samburu Women Trust, a not-for-profit organisation devoted to the empowerment of  Samburu’s indigenous women and girls.  Here, the Trust offers pyscho-social support to women who have been abused by their husbands, runs campaigns against FGM, supports girls denied an opportunity to go to school by their parents, and engages local and opinion leaders on the consequences of some of the community’s harmful cultural practices to influence mindset change.

Today, Samburu Women Trust has 50 women and girls of different ages, including a Chief Government Officer, who have been empowered to successfully resist FGM and are instead now local champions against the practice. Over the years, the community’s women and girls who previously never owned land have been empowered to start asserting their rights to land, so much so much that when the Kenyan Government came to issue land tittles to the Samburu Community last year, of the 1000 land tittles issued, 600 were issued to women.

These gains have marked Meriwas out for hateful threats and profiling by especially the patriarchal elders and local politicians afraid of losing their power and social influence thanks to the emerging social consciousness in the community. At one time, she was trailed and pursued by two men and only managed to escape them by running to the nearest police station.

Still, Meriwas will not relent. Together with her team they are now drafting an anti-beading law for tabling in the Samburu County assembly, to outlaw the culture of girl-child beading. The practice involves the community’s warrior men known as Morans marking out young girls between 9 -15years with beads around their necks and proceeding to have involuntary sexual relations with them, as a way of preparing them for marriage. Since the morans and their beaded girls are always from the same clan, marriage is prohibited, and in the event of a pregnancy, it is terminated through forceful abortion carried out by the community’s women elders. “It is a very abusive practice in so many ways, and it is only the Samburu that practice it. So, we are determined to end it,” she says.

Asked about what drives her, she says it is the urge to push the ladder back. “I went to school by a chance, I overcame all the obstacles as an indigenous woman to be where I stand today as a respected woman leader in my community and country. So I feel I have an obligation to empower other young girls and women like me to emerge.”

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pamela Angwench Judith

For most of her life, Pamela Angwech’s existence has always been a defiant and simultaneous act of survival and resistance. In 1976 when she was born, the anti-Amin movement was gathering pace, and her family was one of the earliest victims of the then dictatorship’s reprisals in Northern Uganda. Her father, a passionate educationist in Kitgum district was one of the most vocal critics of the dictatorship’s human rights excesses, which made him an obvious target of the state’s marauding vigilantes.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Joseph Oleshangay

As a human rights lawyer and advocate with the High Court of the United Republic of Tanzania, Joseph Moses Oleshangay spends most of his time crossing from one court to another, litigating human rights cases, some with life-altering implications for ordinary people. It is a monumental responsibility, one he never envisaged growing up.

As a young boy born into a Maasai household in northern Tanzania, his entire childhood revolved around cattle: “Our entire livelihood revolved around cattle. As a child, the main preoccupation was to tend to cows, and my formative years were spent grazing cattle around Endulen. It a simple lifestyle,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Julia Onyoti

The situation of South Sudan’s women and girls remains one of those enduring blights on the country’s conscience. The country retains the unenviable reputation of having the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, and at 51.5%, one of the highest cases of child marriages. It is even worse with gender-based violence(GBV): A 2019 study by UNICEF found that one in every two South Sudan women have experienced intimate partner violence, while a recent UN study, alarmed at the widespread nature of conflict-related sexual violence in the country, in which women are tread as “spoils of war” described it as “a hellish existence for women and girls.

Human Rights Defender of the month:SHIMA BHARE

Shima Bhare Abdalla has never known the luxury and comfort of a stable and safe existence inside her country’s borders. When she was 11, her village was attacked and razed to the ground, sending her family and entire neighborhood scattering into an internally displaced People’s Camp, at the start of the Darfur civil war.

That was in 2002. Shima and her family relocated into Kalma refugee camp in Southern Darfur, where, alongside over 100,000 other displaced persons, they had to forge out a living, under the watch and benevolence of the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID. It is here that Shima’s human rights consciousness came to life. She enthusiastically embraced whatever little education she could access under the auspices of the humanitarian agencies operating in the camp, to be able to tell the story of her people’s plight.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Martial Pa’nucci

Martial Pa’nucci is a child of what is fondly known as Africa’s second liberation. In 1990 when he was born, the Republic of Congo, like many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, was undergoing a transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet developments in ordinary people’s lives were not as optimistic. Pa’nucci was born in one of Brazzaville’s ghettos to a polygamous family of two mothers and 19 siblings, where survival was a daily exercise in courage. When he was two, his father died, followed in quick succession by many of his siblings. Pa’nucci did not start school until he was nine, and he had to do odd jobs – from barbering to plumbing to earn his stay there, lest he dropped out like many of his peers.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Veronica Almedom

Veronica Almedom is a poster child of successful immigration. A duo Eritrean and Swiss citizen, she was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland where she permanently resides. Her parents are some of the earliest victims of Eritrea’s cycles of violence. When Eritrea’s war of independence peaked in the early 1980s, they escaped the country as unaccompanied minors, wandering through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, before making the hazard journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they crossed first to Italy, and finally, to Switzerland, where they settled first as refugees, and later, as permanent residents.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.

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