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: 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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