Human Rights Defender of the month: Agather Atuhaire

In late May this year, Agather Atuhaire, via her twitter account, broke the story that the Parliament of Uganda had spent a whopping Shs. 2.8billion to purchase two luxury vehicles for the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker.

Aside from the fact that the expenditure was unnecessary – both the Speaker and her Deputy already have two luxury vehicles for their official duties, the purchase flouted all public procurement procedures, and when Parliament’s contracts committee could not approve the procurement, the members of the committee were fired and new ones immediately appointed to approve the purchase.   

Public reaction to the revelation was, as expected, furious. After all, the news came at a time when there was a marked and continuous increase in the prices of general commodities that had provoked a spike in the cost of living, with the public being urged to be frugal, by among others, the leadership of Parliament.

Agather, in true journalistic style, pointed out these contradictions, causing a stir at Parliament Avenue. The reaction was fast and furious:    

They said I needed to be taught a lesson. That I shouldn’t be spoiling the name of the speaker. A few parliamentary staffers were arrested and quizzed as to who had leaked this information to me. They also considered arresting me, but finding that they couldn’t find an offence with which to charge me, I was warned that they would pick me up (a euphemism for kidnap), and throw me in a dungeon,” she says.

But Agather was not the kind to be deterred. Born 34 years ago, in Sheema, Western Uganda, she developed a revulsion for injustice at an early age. Her father was a violent alcoholic who routinely abused her mother and neglected Agather and her seven siblings, leaving the entire responsibility of raising and providing for them to her mother who did not own any means of production or have a source of income.  

“It was a violent childhood. I would go to bed and sleep with one eye open, not sure I would wake up to find my mother alive, because whenever my father returned home drunk, he would beat her up. It bothered me so much that I started inciting my mother to report my father to the authorities, first to insure her against further abuse, but also to warrant him to give her a share of the family resources to take care of us,” she says.

When Agather realised that her mother was never going to challenge her father, she decided to take up the responsibility herself. “Going forward, whenever my father would lock my mother outside the house after a quarrel, I would knock on his door to ensure that he didn’t sleep either, until he opened for her to get in. I also started confronting him on his responsibilities – whenever I wanted a book and it wasn’t there, I would follow him to the bar and ask how he was able to find money to drink, but not for a book,” she says.

That experience shaped her outlook on life, leaving her determined to study hard, be self-sustaining, and fight injustice wherever she came across it.  

“I thought to myself, the reason my mother probably wouldn’t leave an abusive marriage was because she didn’t own any resources or a means of income. So, I swore at an early age that I would study hard and be self-sustaining, so I don’t have to be held hostage by anyone. I also swore I would become a lawyer so I could enforce the rights of victims of abuse and injustice like my mother.”

But neither did education come easy. For her early secondary, she had to walk 7kms to a local school that accepted agricultural produce for school fees.  Alarmed by the strain such a journey would have on a young Agather, her elder sister found her a place in Alliance School Mbarara, which was offering partial scholarships for young, brilliant, but financially handicapped kids. Here, she managed to complete high school.


Unable to afford her dream law program at University, she settled for Journalism.  But she remained firm in her conviction that only with the law could she empower herself and vulnerable people like her mother to know their rights as insurance against abuse.


So, four years after graduating with a bachelor’s in Journalism and Communication, she returned to Makerere University to study a Bachelor of Laws. At Law School, true to character, she found that there was systemic dysfunction in some aspects of the course’s administration and began questioning them.

“There were cases where as many as half an entire class would routinely fail the same course unit and it seemed implausible to me. Aggrieved students would appeal a course unit they’d failed in year one but would get to year four before their appeal was heard, which meant that they wouldn’t graduate. I started questioning such things. “

This questioning marked her out as a trouble-some student, and so, when she enrolled for the bar course in 2019, her peers took trouble to warn her that at the Law Development Centre (LDC), her restless questioning of things would not be tolerated.

“They were telling me that we know you’re an activist, but if you take that trouble-some streak to LDC, you will never leave, meaning that I would be deliberately failed. That already told me that there were institutional problems at LDC, which everybody was afraid of confronting,” she says.

As fate would have it, at the end of the bar course in 2021, the graduation process was messed up, and Agather found  that before embarking on defending others’ rights, she would have to first defend her own, this time against the very institution that was supposed to certify her as a fully-fledged advocate.

Instead of releasing students’ results for them to know if they had passed or failed, the Centre released a list of students in three categories; of those who had passed and would graduate, those who had failed less than three subjects and were required to undertake supplementary exams, and finally, those who had completely failed and had been discontinued from the course. Agather belonged to the second category and was required to take a supplementary exam, but something was not adding up.

“We were looking at those lists and wondering, how do I verify that I have failed? where are the results? Moreover, there were names on those lists of former students who had graduated in previous years, signalling that something was wrong,” she says.

 Agather wrote to the LDC Director asking for answers, which email was ignored. Unrelenting, she teamed up with other aggrieved students to petition LDC’s Management Committee, the Speaker of Parliament, the Law Council and the National Council for Higher Education.  

Sensing a reluctance of some of the petitioned  institutions to act, Agather and her colleagues started a social media campaign to force their hand, and to publicly challenge LDC’s impunity. As the pressure intensified and debate on the Centre’s conduct gained momentum in public and on social media, LDC caved in. They allowed students to verify their scripts and what they found were glaring inconsistences.

In the resultant rectifications, Agather would emerge among those who had passed – or should have passed, since the rectifications came two months after graduation. Although she and her colleagues had missed out on graduation, a resultant management committee ruling directed that all those students who had wrongfully missed out on graduation be given their transcripts. Agather says this was very illuminating:

“It reinforced my conviction that unless we develop the courage to challenge injustice, it will continue to be perpetrated against others long after we have been victims. The impunity at LDC had become systemic because nobody was willing to challenge it lest they be victimized. But because nobody was challenging it, many more people continually became victims of the institution’s dysfunction,” she says.

Asked why she thinks justice remains out of reach for many people, including those who should-be empowered enough to demand it, she says one of the challenges is the cost of access to justice.

“Sometimes, the cost is financial. But other times, it can be social and political. Many perpetrators of injustice hide behind the power of their institutions and bureaucracies to penalize those who dare to challenge them. Sometimes, the penalty can be loss of job, other times, the sabotaging of one’s career growth, among others.”

Still, Agather insists, change is only possible if we each purpose to challenge injustice wherever we encounter it.  “Like Desmond Tutu urged us, do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world!” she says.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid

Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid is one of the lucky survivors of Sudan’s latest conflict.

He was born 36 years ago, in Almalha locality, North Darfur state, the third born in a family of 10. Then, Darfur was not the hot bed of war and conflict it has since become infamous for. Although the region, predominantly inhabited by Sudan’s black population remained segregated by the predominantly Arab government in Khartoum, its people co-existed in thriving, predominantly subsistence communities. In Almalha, people reared camels and cattle, while others tended crops. The community was also famed for its hospitality to strangers, welcoming outsiders who ended up staying, owning land, and intermarrying with their hosts.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo

In personality, Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo could not be more different. Where the former is loud, if free-spirited, and mischievous, the latter is quiet, reticent, and predominantly solitary. Together though, they are the quiet champions behind DefendDefenders’ digital skilling programs, equipping (women) human rights defenders with critically transformative – and sometimes, life-saving digital tools and skills.
“You’ll be surprised how many people out there, including the literate are not exposed to the idea of digital safety. And as technology gets more advanced, it is getting ever more lucrative for hackers and other malign actors, which means that the urgency of the need for digital security skills for everyone cannot be over-stated,” says Daphne.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Mary Pais Da Silva

On 17 February 2023, in Ethiopia’s rustic resort of Bishoftu, more than 5000Km from her homeland, Mary Da Silva was announced winner of the 2023 AfricanDefenders Shield Award, in the presence of hundreds of colleague human rights defenders from 36 African countries. It was a fitting validation for the Eswatini human rights lawyer, whose sense of empathy and sensitivity to injustice has been a defining hallmark of her career.
Born 45 years ago in Lubombo, eastern Eswatini, the last of 4 siblings, Mary attributes her values to her upbringing. Although she was born in Eswatini, her parents are originally from Mozambique, and only relocated to eSwatini at the start of the Mozambican civil war that lasted between 1977-1992, which ravaged families and displaced many others.

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 plans, Jane seized the opportunity to stand up for herself and interests:

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kasale Maleton Mwaana

Kasale’s human rights activism precedes his years. The son of pastoralist parents from Ngorongoro district in northern Tanzania, he grew up seeing his parents and entire community having to defend their land and way of life against authorities who thought their lands could be put to better use. Now, at 25, Kasale is already one of the most recognizable advocates of his people’s cause, much to the ire of Tanzanian authorities.
“Our people’s struggle goes back many generations. It started with the pushing out of our forefathers from Serengeti to gazette Serengeti National Park in 1959, and then further evictions from the Ngorongoro crater to gazette the Ngorongoro conservation area in 1975. Since then, every generation has had to resist further evictions. It’s now my generation’s turn,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa

Arguably no single individual personifies Burundi’s human rights struggle like Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Born 72 years ago in the small East African country, Claver’s quest for human rights and justice is as old as his country’s modern history.

When his country was plunged into a civil war that killed an estimated 300,000 people following the 1993 assassination of President Cyprien Ntaryamira, Claver was one of its earliest victims. Then a close confidant (he was also a former driver) of the assassinated President, he was framed, and arrested, and would go on to spend the next two years between 1994 and 1996 in jail.

It is in prison that the ulcer of injustice bit him hard. There, he met inmates who had either been wrongfully imprisoned or who had been remanded for long periods without trial, all living in dehumanising conditions. “I was strongly revolted by the injustice. Here were probably innocent people whose years were being wasted away by an unfair judicial system, with no one to stand up for them. I swore that I would try to do something about it once I got out myself,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kamau Ngugi

On October 7, 2022, Kamau Ngugi was elected Chairperson of the East and Horn of Africa human rights defenders’ network (EHAHRD-net), a stirring affirmation for the Kenyan human rights defender’s efforts in defense of human rights that go back nearly 30 years.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Margaret Muna Nigba

A human rights lawyer per excellence, Margaret is also an indefatigable woman human rights defender (WHRD) who has won the adulation of millions in her country for her impassioned dedication to defending the rights of women and girls in her native Liberia.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.