Human rights defender of the month (April 2019): Gabriel Mugaruka

Gabriel Mugaruka is a Congolese human rights defender (HRD), with 19 years specialised experience in child rights issues, including child soldiers, as well as women’s rights. As a vocal and prominent activist in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he was forced to flee the country 11 years ago, seeking refuge in Uganda. Today, Mugaruka is the Coordinator of the Uganda-based Human Rights Defenders Solidarity Network, a network for exiled HRDs, and a language teacher of French at Kabojja International School.

Mugaruka started his activism at University (Universite Officielle de Bukavu), while studying for a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. In 1998, he founded the organisation Christian’s work for development (Travail du Chrétien pour le Developpement), focusing on human rights awareness and monitoring – thereby playing a vital role in defending human rights in the country.

“Let us break the silence, let us go ahead and fight for our rights”

In 2008, he was forced to flee Congo leaving his family and friends behind. “They saw me as an opposition. I went to the television, and people would say that I was declaring a war against the government. That’s when I was attacked, my family and I, my kids, my dad, my mum; we were all attacked. I decided to move, before anything would happen to us,” Mugaruka stressed. “You don’t know where the threats can come from. I left without anything, only wearing shorts, t-shirt, and slippers, that’s all. Many other people are coming the same way, because you are chased from your home and have to leave in the middle of the night,” he continued.

After a while in exile, his family joined him in Uganda. For the first six months, Mugaruka, together with his wife and two children, lived in a tent, while seeking work as a gardener during the day. “To survive as an exiled Congolese HRD in Uganda was not easy,” Mugaruka stressed. As he wanted to continue his human rights work, he contacted Amnesty International to ask for any job opportunities. “Amnesty asked me; what can you do? I said I can get an education. I am an activist, but I can also teach.” After one year of education, he got a job at Refugee Law Project, a project of Makerere University, as a language teacher for francophone refugees.

“They attacked my wife, they burned down our house. That’s when my wife came to Uganda as well.”

With the support of DefendDefenders, Mugaruka recently concluded his Masters in Security Studies, focusing on the security environment of exiled activists in Uganda. “My fellow human rights activists don’t have the tools to protect themselves. That’s why I want to know the tactical tools on how HRDs can get secured.” His research will be published this year.

“There is a lot of things missing in human rights, especially the security of HRDs. They defend the rights of others, but not their own. […] We need to train them, and give them some tactical tools.”

Mukaruga continues to run the HRD Solidarity Network, with a focus on empowering women sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) survivors, in addition to exiled HRDs in general. In total, the organisation has trained more than 600 women in protection and security, in addition to conducting training of trainers with HRDs. “Many people have believed in me, which support allowed me to get to where I am; now I want to give back to my community,” Mugaruka says.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Karis Moses Oteba

Karis Moses Oteba is DefendDefenders’ Protection Officer and Well-being Lead, promoting self-care and effective stress management amongst human rights defenders. He started defending human rights at the early age of 11, as a member of the children’s parliament, convened to listen to the views of children concerning Uganda’s 1997 Children’s Act.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Vanessa Tsehaye

Vanessa Tsehaye started her work as a human rights defender at an early age: at 16, she founded a high school group in support of imprisoned Eritrean journalist Seyoum Tsehaye. Seven years later, the same diaspora organisation, One Day Seyoum, is one of Eritrea’s leading human rights organisations – spear-headed by the now 23-year old Vanessa.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Edmund Yakani

Edmund Yakani is one of South Sudan’s most prominent human rights defenders (HRDs). The Civil Rights Defender of the Year 2017 has worked on an array of topics – the rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), transitional justice, and the protection of HRDs in cooperation with DefendDefenders – that are all connected by the common thread of human rights promotion and protection.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onyango Owor

In March 2020, Uganda’s Constitutional Court nullified the Public Order Management Act, 2013, a law that made arbitrary restrictions on freedom of assembly possible. One of the people behind the successful petition of POMA is Onyango Owor, a Ugandan lawyer with 15 years of experience in representing human rights defenders.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Kadar Abdi Ibrahim

Kadar Abdi Ibrahim is an outspoken human rights activist and journalist from Djibouti – a country where journalists are frequently harassed, subjected to government-orchestrated intimidation and reprisals, and prevented from pursuing their work independently. Yet, Kadar continues to use his voice and pen as tools to promote justice.

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.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Faiza Abdi Mohamed

The Somali activist Faiza Abdi Mohamed has promoted human rights in her home country for a decade, which has made her a target of verbal abuse, threats, and arbitrary arrest, forcing her to flee Somalia and seek exile in Uganda. Yet, she remains extremely vocal about human rights violations in her country. “I’ve lost so many of my friends due to cruelties, so I can’t keep quiet,” she says.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Omot Agwa Okwoy

In Ethiopia, land grabbing and villagisation has resulted in severe human rights abuses, however, being vocal about these abuses can be extremely risky. Omot Agwa Okwoy, our human rights defender of the month for December 2019, has fought for land rights and the rights of indigenous people in the Gambella region in Ethiopia for almost 20 years – leaving him with visible and invisible scars.

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