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.
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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?
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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.
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[…] 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: 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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