Human Rights Defender of the Month: Aluel Atem

Aluel Atem is an ambitious woman activist from South Sudan who plays a vital role in the promotion of women’s rights in the country. However, life as an outspoken feminist in a patriarchal country is not a walk in the park. “It’s not only about being a female, but a young female. You get undermined for being a woman in all-man spaces, and for being young in older spaces,” Aluel explains.

Since the civil war erupted in December 2013, the situation for women in South Sudan has worsened, Aluel explains. “We have had a lot of conflict in South Sudan, which is not going to be solved very soon. We have a lot of conflict that’s historical – going deep.”

To promote women’s rights amid the long-standing and brutal conflict, Aluel co-founded Crown the Woman, an organisation focusing on raising awareness about sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and fostering female leadership and mentorship for in South Sudan. She also represents South Sudanese Women at the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (CTSAMVM) board.

“We’re not having constructive conversations about gender in South Sudan. Women get harassed and beaten for simply attempting to break away from the cycle. Information is key, and I think that’s something that’s lacking,” she says, while stressing that culture and norms are not valid justifications to treat women inhumanly

We’re not having constructive conversations about gender in South Sudan. Women get harassed and beaten for simply attempting to break away from the cycle. Information is key, and I think that’s something that’s lacking.

In 2017, she took part in the development of South Sudan’s National Action Plan 2030 on ending child, early, and forced marriage. The country was one of the 21 African countries which committed themselves to ending child marriage by 2030, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), when African Ministers of Education and Health gathered for a meeting in Cape Town, South Africa in 2013.  

In addition to women’s rights, Aluel is passionate about boosting South Sudan’s young generation. She stresses that the unawareness of female role models damages young people, especially girls and young women. “We have a lot of influential South Sudanese women, but young women do not know about them because they are not documented and talked about often enough.”

South Sudan has signed many regional and international legal instruments relevant to women’s rights. Aluel highlights that regional and international bodies to put more pressure on the South Sudanese Government, using frameworks like the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 among others. “The instruments have become a piece of paper. South Sudan should be held accountable for their violations.”

We have a lot of influential South Sudanese women, but young women do not know about them because they are not documented and talked about often enough.

In addition to her work at the national level, she is an active advocate at regional and international fora. In 2019, Aluel took part in the UN Human Rights Council session as one of DefendDefenders’ delegates, where she highlighted the human rights situation in her country. She trains globally on conflict and gender transformation skills.

“There’s an idea that people fighting for human rights shouldn’t be women, it’s like women’s rights and human rights are two different things. Once, in a high-level meeting where I challenged men on their attitudes and perceptions on women, a man later pulled me aside and said that ‘you are not married and you are young, so you don’t understand.’” She refers to a generational gap in South Sudan, whereas young people are excluded from peace and decision-making processes amid the transition. “People are not finding creative ways to include young people and bridge the age gap,” she says. “Young South Sudanese need mentorship and dialogue.”

As for what keeps her motivated, her reasons seem clear: “the women themselves! The energy that South Sudanese women have, the commitment they have, despite the situation, is a motivation. It’s so many women and young people working so hard every day, so I know that I’m not alone.”

Visit Aluel Atem’s website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook

See more HRDs of the Month

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.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mohammed Adam Hassan

Mohammed Hassan has known mostly conflict, displacement, and war all his adult life. As part of Sudan’s black population in the country’s region of Darfur, they were for long the victims of oppression by Khartoum, then under now deposed dictator Omar Bashir. Then, in 2003, when Mohammed was 19, Darfur’s black population decided to fight back. Two rebel movements – Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement launched a rebellion against Bashir’s government, seeking justice for Darfur’s non-Arab population. The response by Khartoum was chilling: Bashir’s forces launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the region’s non-Arab population, and thousands of families were displaced and herded into refugee camps.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Issah Musundi

At first encounter, Issah Musundi is a coy, if not shy, mostly reserved lad. But behind that quiet disposition is a steely character and an enforced existence.
Born 27 years ago in Kenya’s border district of Busia, Issah belongs to Kenya’s sexual minorities community, who have had to win majority rights that other Kenyans take for granted.

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.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Esther Tawiah

In Ghana, Esther Tawiah is one of the loudest voices for women empowerment and gender. It is also why she is one of the most loathed. Born and raised in New-Tafo in the country’s eastern region, Esther grew up surrounded by a culture that frowned at the idea of women participating in public affairs, and witnessed firsthand, the backlash those who dared to challenge that cultural norm faced.

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