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.

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Human Rights Defender of the month: Alex Njenga John

Alex Njenga has always believed in egalitarianism both as a principle and as a tool for justice. As a result, he has always been suspicious of, and at times hostile to social prejudices that treat some people as “more equal than others,” – to use a line from George Orwell’s famed political fable, Animal Farm.

Some of the experiences that have shaped his social and political outlook have been personal. As an adolescent in Kenya’s Uasin Gishu County, Alex was stigmatised and denied healthcare after he identified himself as belonging to Kenya’s sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) community.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Abacha Ahmed Ibrahim

Abacha Ahmed Ibrahim is one of his country’s leading advocates for the rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs).

Born 34 years ago into a family of Eight, in Kajokeji County, East of Juba, the Capital of South Sudan, Abacha ’s passion for human rights was born out of grim personal experience. At birth, he was immediately neglected by his father on discovering that the little infant was visually impaired.

“My own father denied me access to education because he considered my disability a kind of misfortune brought to him by my mother,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Fadia Khalaf

Fadia Khalaf was not meant to be an activist. By her own admission, she was born into a conservative Muslim family – the first of six siblings. In Saudi Arabia where she was born and raised, the ruling ideology in the Kingdom was wahabbism – a puritanical version of Islam in which women are strictly expected to stay in the background and not play any public role. Yet even in that conservative setting, she managed to nurture a political consciousness:

“I think reading at young age helped build my awareness on concepts like justice and rights in general. I was exposed to concepts around human freedom, and that nurtured the rebel in me,” she says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mugisha Jelousy

As the rest of Uganda readies itself to finally get its oil out of the ground with the conclusion of the Final Investment Decision (FID), Mugisha Jealousy, 50, is one of those following the events with a mournful resignation.

A resident of Kasenyi village, Nile Parish in Buliisa district, Mugisha is one of those affected by the Tilenga project, a multipronged project by Total E&P. The project involves reservation and development of land in districts of Buliisa and Nwoya for oil exploration, setting up of a crude oil processing plant and related infrastructure to support Uganda’s oil production activities.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Anny Kapenga

As a young student, Anny Kapenga used to cringe at the cult-like worship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the then Zaire’s President. By then, in the early 1990s, Zaire was still under one party rule, and calls were increasing for Mobutu to open political space to allow other parties to operate. In the meantime, however, all Zairians were expected to show affection for Mobutu wherever they gathered in public.

Students across Zaire’s schools were required to sing and dance adoringly before his (Mobutu)’s portrait every morning before they went to class, and all school scholastic materials were emblemed with his portrait. A young Anny never really appreciated the obsession:

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Fadwo Hassan Jimale

Women in Somalia are not supposed to be ‘loud.’ Historically, conservative religious traditions combined with a resilient patriarchal system ensured that women in the coastal nation remain veiled and meek, always in the shadow of their husbands.

Not so for Fadwo Hassan Jimale, Somalia’s crusading human rights defender. As a ranking member of Somalia’s Women Human Rights Defenders Coalition, Fadwo and her colleagues host regular capacity building sessions for current and emerging women human rights defenders (WHRDs).

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Oliver Rubama

As a lone girl in a traditionally patriarchal & heteronormative Muslim family in Tanzania, Oliver Rubama grew up with so much pressure to conform. She was expected to conform to socially expected patterns of female behavior and dress, and to aspire to get married to a man approved by her family.

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