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: Alex Njenga John

Alex Njenga has always believed in egalitarianism both as a principle and as a tool for justice. As a result, he has always been suspicious of, and at times hostile to social prejudices that treat some people as “more equal than others,” – to use a line from George Orwell’s famed political fable, Animal Farm.

Some of the experiences that have shaped his social and political outlook have been personal. As an adolescent in Kenya’s Uasin Gishu County, Alex was stigmatised and denied healthcare after he identified himself as belonging to Kenya’s sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) community.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Abacha Ahmed Ibrahim

Abacha Ahmed Ibrahim is one of his country’s leading advocates for the rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs).

Born 34 years ago into a family of Eight, in Kajokeji County, East of Juba, the Capital of South Sudan, Abacha ’s passion for human rights was born out of grim personal experience. At birth, he was immediately neglected by his father on discovering that the little infant was visually impaired.

“My own father denied me access to education because he considered my disability a kind of misfortune brought to him by my mother,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Fadia Khalaf

Fadia Khalaf was not meant to be an activist. By her own admission, she was born into a conservative Muslim family – the first of six siblings. In Saudi Arabia where she was born and raised, the ruling ideology in the Kingdom was wahabbism – a puritanical version of Islam in which women are strictly expected to stay in the background and not play any public role. Yet even in that conservative setting, she managed to nurture a political consciousness:

“I think reading at young age helped build my awareness on concepts like justice and rights in general. I was exposed to concepts around human freedom, and that nurtured the rebel in me,” she says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mugisha Jelousy

As the rest of Uganda readies itself to finally get its oil out of the ground with the conclusion of the Final Investment Decision (FID), Mugisha Jealousy, 50, is one of those following the events with a mournful resignation.

A resident of Kasenyi village, Nile Parish in Buliisa district, Mugisha is one of those affected by the Tilenga project, a multipronged project by Total E&P. The project involves reservation and development of land in districts of Buliisa and Nwoya for oil exploration, setting up of a crude oil processing plant and related infrastructure to support Uganda’s oil production activities.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Anny Kapenga

As a young student, Anny Kapenga used to cringe at the cult-like worship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the then Zaire’s President. By then, in the early 1990s, Zaire was still under one party rule, and calls were increasing for Mobutu to open political space to allow other parties to operate. In the meantime, however, all Zairians were expected to show affection for Mobutu wherever they gathered in public.

Students across Zaire’s schools were required to sing and dance adoringly before his (Mobutu)’s portrait every morning before they went to class, and all school scholastic materials were emblemed with his portrait. A young Anny never really appreciated the obsession:

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Fadwo Hassan Jimale

Women in Somalia are not supposed to be ‘loud.’ Historically, conservative religious traditions combined with a resilient patriarchal system ensured that women in the coastal nation remain veiled and meek, always in the shadow of their husbands.

Not so for Fadwo Hassan Jimale, Somalia’s crusading human rights defender. As a ranking member of Somalia’s Women Human Rights Defenders Coalition, Fadwo and her colleagues host regular capacity building sessions for current and emerging women human rights defenders (WHRDs).

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Oliver Rubama

As a lone girl in a traditionally patriarchal & heteronormative Muslim family in Tanzania, Oliver Rubama grew up with so much pressure to conform. She was expected to conform to socially expected patterns of female behavior and dress, and to aspire to get married to a man approved by her family.

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