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: 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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