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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.

She had previously gained experiences with high-level human rights mechanisms in Burundi, the Gambia, Geneva, and Mali, but always felt that the mainstream human rights mandate is missing something. “Humanitarian NGOs’ interventions are focused on emergencies. It creates a system where refugees have to keep begging. They don’t die, but they also can’t move on. And without economic autonomy, it is impossible for them to defend their rights,” says Chantal. So, she founded Light For All to tackle the issue of economic resilience and livelihoods amongst Burundian refugee women and youth in Uganda.

Humanitarian NGOs’ interventions are focused on emergencies. It creates a system where refugees have to keep begging. They don’t die, but they also can’t move on. And without economic autonomy, it is impossible for them to defend their rights.

Light For All aims to foster economic resilience and independence by supporting refugee women in finding sustainable income opportunities. Additionally, with its ‘No Child Left Behind’ initiative, Light For All sponsors refugee children’s education, as many of them cannot afford school fees. According to Chantal, out-of-school children are often exposed to dangers like alcohol and drugs. Sponsoring them to go to school decreases those dangers and will help them become economically resilient in the future. Light For All strives to avoid these children becoming a lost generation, she explains.

The topic of economic resilience also affects Light For All itself – as a young human rights NGO working outside the mainstream, which usually focuses on monitoring or advocacy, it can be difficult to find funding for topics like economic resilience, education or psycho-social support. “Working in exile is one of the main challenges. I started an NGO in Uganda, a huge country. In Burundi I knew almost everybody, but here it is much more difficult to network. That also makes it harder to find partners and donors,” Chantal says.

It is unacceptable that this has been going on for six years. Burundi is a forgotten crisis, it’s the least-funded humanitarian crisis in the world. The government says the situation changed, but it hasn’t. Some refugees go back and get killed or raped.

Chantal left Burundi fourteen years ago for an employment opportunity with the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva, but in the meantime her choice to work abroad has become semi-voluntary. Like so many WHRDs, she has been the victim of online sexist smear campaigns aiming to delegitimise her reputation and her work. When the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi released its first report in 2017, Chantal woke up to 2000 hateful tweets. She suspects the proxy accounts are affiliated to members of the ruling party, thus it would probably not be safe for her to return to Burundi. She has not been to her home country in years, just like hundreds of other Burundian HRDs and journalists, who continue having to operate from outside the country. “It is unacceptable that this has been going on for six years. Burundi is a forgotten crisis, it’s the least-funded humanitarian crisis in the world. The government says the situation changed, but it hasn’t. Some refugees go back and get killed or raped.”

Chantal is convinced that change and progress are possible in Burundi. She calls on the international community to put the country back in the spotlight and foster positive and constructive dialogue. Until then, she will continue to focus on the problem in front of her and promote dignified livelihoods of women, youth, and children refugees in Uganda.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month:SHIMA BHARE

Shima Bhare Abdalla has never known the luxury and comfort of a stable and safe existence inside her country’s borders. When she was 11, her village was attacked and razed to the ground, sending her family and entire neighborhood scattering into an internally displaced People’s Camp, at the start of the Darfur civil war.

That was in 2002. Shima and her family relocated into Kalma refugee camp in Southern Darfur, where, alongside over 100,000 other displaced persons, they had to forge out a living, under the watch and benevolence of the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID. It is here that Shima’s human rights consciousness came to life. She enthusiastically embraced whatever little education she could access under the auspices of the humanitarian agencies operating in the camp, to be able to tell the story of her people’s plight.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Martial Pa’nucci

Martial Pa’nucci is a child of what is fondly known as Africa’s second liberation. In 1990 when he was born, the Republic of Congo, like many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, was undergoing a transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet developments in ordinary people’s lives were not as optimistic. Pa’nucci was born in one of Brazzaville’s ghettos to a polygamous family of two mothers and 19 siblings, where survival was a daily exercise in courage. When he was two, his father died, followed in quick succession by many of his siblings. Pa’nucci did not start school until he was nine, and he had to do odd jobs – from barbering to plumbing to earn his stay there, lest he dropped out like many of his peers.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Veronica Almedom

Veronica Almedom is a poster child of successful immigration. A duo Eritrean and Swiss citizen, she was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland where she permanently resides. Her parents are some of the earliest victims of Eritrea’s cycles of violence. When Eritrea’s war of independence peaked in the early 1980s, they escaped the country as unaccompanied minors, wandering through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, before making the hazard journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they crossed first to Italy, and finally, to Switzerland, where they settled first as refugees, and later, as permanent residents.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Godfrey Kagaayi

Born 33 years ago, in Bukoba, northern Tanzania, Godfrey Kagaayi did not have to look elsewhere for inspiration to tackle the daunting challenge of mental health. By his own admission, the family and community in which he was raised were fertile grounds for the same.
His family had crossed the border into Uganda when he was barely 5 months, settling into present day Rakai district. But the Rakai of the 90s was a difficult place for a child to make their earliest memories: In 1990, Uganda’s first ever case of HIV/AIDs was reported in the district, setting off a decade of suffering and anguish for many of its residents. Taking advantage of the Rakai’s fishing and polygamous lifestyle, the novel virus spread like wildfire, killing people in droves and leaving untold heartache in its wake.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid

Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid is one of the lucky survivors of Sudan’s latest conflict.

He was born 36 years ago, in Almalha locality, North Darfur state, the third born in a family of 10. Then, Darfur was not the hot bed of war and conflict it has since become infamous for. Although the region, predominantly inhabited by Sudan’s black population remained segregated by the predominantly Arab government in Khartoum, its people co-existed in thriving, predominantly subsistence communities. In Almalha, people reared camels and cattle, while others tended crops. The community was also famed for its hospitality to strangers, welcoming outsiders who ended up staying, owning land, and intermarrying with their hosts.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo

In personality, Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo could not be more different. Where the former is loud, if free-spirited, and mischievous, the latter is quiet, reticent, and predominantly solitary. Together though, they are the quiet champions behind DefendDefenders’ digital skilling programs, equipping (women) human rights defenders with critically transformative – and sometimes, life-saving digital tools and skills.
“You’ll be surprised how many people out there, including the literate are not exposed to the idea of digital safety. And as technology gets more advanced, it is getting ever more lucrative for hackers and other malign actors, which means that the urgency of the need for digital security skills for everyone cannot be over-stated,” says Daphne.