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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: Apollo Mukasa

Apollo Mukasa’s journey into activism is deeply rooted in his commitment to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). As the Executive Director of Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD), Apollo is a driving force behind initiatives aimed at combating discrimination among PWDs. UNAPD was established in 1998 as a platform for voicing concerns of persons with physical disabilities to realise a barrier free environment where they can enjoy their rights to the fullest.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Leon Ntakiyiruta

As a child, Leon wanted to be a magistrate – whom he saw as agents of justice. Born in 1983 in Burundi’s Southern province, he came of age at a time of great social and political upheaval in the East African country. In 1993 when Leon was barely 10, Burundi was besieged by a civil war that would last for the next 12 years until 2005, characterized by indiscriminate violence and gross human rights abuses in which over 300,000 people are estimated to have died.In 2012, still struggling to find her footing in Kampala, Aida was introduced to DefendDefenders, where she was introduced to the organisation’s resource center, and assured, it (the center) would be at her disposal whenever she needed to use it.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Aida Musa

In August 2011, Aida crossed into Uganda, pregnant, and barely able to communicate in another language other than Arabic. The transition was a difficult one, she says: “It was my first-time outside Sudan, and yet I did not know any other language. The first months were very difficult.”
In 2012, still struggling to find her footing in Kampala, Aida was introduced to DefendDefenders, where she was introduced to the organisation’s resource center, and assured, it (the center) would be at her disposal whenever she needed to use it.

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.

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