Human Rights Defender of the Month: Brenda Kugonza

Brenda Kugonza has fought for women’s rights in Uganda for more than 13 years, and is currently the Executive Director of Women Human Rights Defenders Network-Uganda (WHRDN-U). As one of the network’s founding members, her goal is to raise awareness and knowledge about women’s struggles, especially sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).“As a defender, you lose friends and family members – they don’t want to be associated with someone who brings them shame. We are viewed as women with bad manners and I struggle daily with discrimination,” she affirms.  

WHRDN-U was born from a call by women human rights defenders (WHRDs) who felt they needed their own network to articulate their needs and protection strategies. In coming together, they “created a sense of sisterhood,” Kugonza stress. WHRDN-U is key in “promoting a holistic feminist protection approach for at-risk WHRDs. The network has given us hope,” she continues. Due to lack of financial resources, however, she is at times forced to use her own money to ensure the women are protected.

 

Promoting a holistic feminist protection approach for at-risk WHRDs. The network has given us hope.

 Born and raised in Uganda, Kugonza says she started defending human rights at the age of ten. Her zeal has seen her lead various women organisations and projects, including working with UN Women and the Council for Economic Empowerment for Women of Africa-Uganda. In 2007, while with the Forum for African Women Educationalist, she led a successful campaign to stop early marriages and school dropouts, in addition to being very vocal in the advocacy against the Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014) and the Anti-Pornography Act (2014).

Kugonza has not been immune to the challenges that come with being a WHRD and a feminist. As a young woman activist, her women’s rights advocacy, especially against SGBV, land rights, and anti-human trafficking, drew criticism from her family and community members. The first time she published a press statement on SGBV and LGBT+ rights, they attacked her and accused her of being a prostitute and a man-hater, she recalls. Further, “they threw insults at me, saying that by supporting women that were victims of SGBV, I would break their marriages. Relatives made comments like ‘we are all getting married and you will not get married because of the work you are doing.’ They also asked intimidating questions like ‘why are you involving yourself in the marriage affairs of others?’ At one point it got physical when a police officer assaulted me for demanding answers why a man had been released without formal charges, yet he had been arrested for assaulting his wife.”

they threw insults at me, saying that by supporting women that were victims of SGBV, I would break their marriages. Relatives made comments like ‘we are all getting married and you will not get married because of the work you are doing.’ They also asked intimidating questions like ‘why are you involving yourself in the marriage affairs of others?’ At one point it got physical when a police officer assaulted me for demanding answers why a man had been released without formal charges, yet he had been arrested for assaulting his wife

She stresses that more attention needs to be given to WHRDs, especially in light of the digital revolution. “At national level, we need solidarity! It shouldn’t only be the women organisations speaking out. National protection mechanisms need to do more. They can’t just sit in their office and define protection needs. They need to talk with women – they need to address the fact that we are attacked because we are women, including sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

“Women are organisers, women are doing a lot of work. We have contributed to the development of the country. We have helped the community and promoted education. We are honouring the women that never give up. The women are saying: we cannot sit back!” she adds. 

See more HRDs of the Month

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.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Andrew Gole

Andrew Gole’s journey to become a human rights defender (HRD) was sparked by a small request: in 2015, a human rights organisation reached out to the trained software engineer about a digital security training. “I didn’t know much about the HRD eco-system or about digital security as an environment on its own,” Andrew says. “So, I did some research, and realised digital security support is just the basic support I used to provide in an internet café.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onesmo Olengurumwa

Protecting human rights is Onesmo Olengurumwa’s passion. When his secondary school lacked access to water and was threatened with closure, Onesmo successfully rallied his fellow students together and protested for their right to education. While at university, he was the human rights association’s president. Becoming a human rights defender was not really a conscious choice, but just the natural course of Onesmo’s life.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Malab Alneel

Malab Alneel was only 20 when Sudan’s revolution started in December 2018, but she knew it was the moment to get involved: “I grew up in a house that was very political. All of my sisters are activists, my parents are very involved. Activism has always been there. But for me it started with the revolution. It just felt like a time for change.”

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