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: Ana Taban

Ana Taban, which means ‘I am Tired’ in Arabic, was established in 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya out of frustration of South Sudanese artists with several issues related to the civil war in the country. This was after another conflict broke out at the Presidential Palace in Juba a few months after the signing of a peace deal.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Jaqueline Mutere

Jaqueline Mutere’s motivation to establish Grace Agenda was a response to the post-election sexual violence of 2007 and 2008 in Kenya. Additionally, as a survivor of sexual violence which resulted into conception of a child, and following the experience of other survivors, Jaqueline identified the need to form an organisation that advocates for reparations for survivors of sexual violence.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Ocen Ivan Kenneth

Ocen Ivan Kenneth is a Program Director at Foundation for Development and Relief Africa (FIDRA), with more than 10 years’ experience working in the human rights field. Ivan’s ambitions for change focus on building inner peace, defending human rights and empowering local communities using theatre and storytelling. He creates a space where people from the community share their personal stories of trauma and resilience as well as identify mechanisms of healing.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Sandra Aceng

Sandra Aceng is an outspoken and energetic woman human rights defender (WHRD). She is a gender and ICT researcher and policy analyst for Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) where she coordinates the Women ICT Advocacy Group, advocating for internet access for all. In addition, she writes on various platforms such as Global Voices, Freedom House, and Impakter Magazine. Her regular contributions to Wikimedia Uganda often focus on profiling WHRDs, female politicians, and journalists.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Chantal Mutamuriza

Chantal Mutamuriza does not wait for problems to be solved. When the Burundian woman human rights defender (WHRD) encounters a problem, she will seek a solution there and then. When hundreds of thousands Burundians had to flee from political unrest in 2015, many of them were stranded in refugee camps with little economic opportunity or access to education. In her problem-solving spirit, Chantal felt compelled to act: she quit her job to put her skills and network to use and founded the NGO Light For All.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Foni Joyce

Foni Joyce has engaged in humanitarian work since the age of 20, when she joined a refugee student organisation to amplify the voices of refugees. Originally from South Sudan, Foni grew up as a refugee in Nairobi, Kenya, but she makes it clear that ‘refugee’ is merely a legal definition: “I firstly define myself as a human being who has been uprooted.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Meskerem  Geset Techane

Meskerem Geset Techane has fought injustice since she can remember: as a child she was known to stand up for herself and others, whether against bullies, teachers, her parents or church. Fighting injustice and promoting human rights is a common theme in the lawyer’s life. “It’s a passion, promoting human rights is not something you choose to do for a living or as a career opportunity. It’s more of a calling for me.”

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