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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.

Now aged 25, Fadia is the Co-founder of Missing Initiative, a volunteer, youth organization dedicated to documenting all persons that are reported missing during Sudan’s ongoing political crisis. The initiative was started in the aftermath of the Khartoum massacre, when armed forces of the Sudanese Transitional Military Council attacked a protest outside the country’s military headquarters, killing at least 127 people.

“From the start of protests to remove Bashir (Sudan’s long-serving President deposed in April 2019), we would always report people who we would realize never returned home after the protests. This was our way of looking out for each other. But after 3 June 2021 (the day of the Khartoum massacre), the situation was terrible. People were killed, women were raped, while many others were disappeared. All of a sudden, because of our past work, I started getting tens of phone-calls of people letting me know that their persons were missing, asking me to do something about it. I had to post all these missing cases on my social media platforms(Twitter & Instagram via @SlayKaiii) in addition to reporting to police, to try to find them. It was from that crisis that I and five other friends decided to start Missing initiative to continue searching for these people,”

The initiative helps document persons announced missing, liaises with the police to conduct a search process, follows up on those in police detention to ensure the progress of their cases and helps some of those arrested find legal representation. To date, Missing Initiative has documented over 100 cases of missing persons, and helped locate about 60, from prisons to hospitals. Among these, at least five were found dead in city morgues.

“It’s horrifying, the conditions in which we find some of these people, if we find them at all. Some are in urgent need of medical attention from all forms of torture, others are imprisoned without charge. Others, we find, have died. But at least, it gives closure to their families,” she says.

As a result of their work, Fadia says that Sudanese now recognise forced disappearances as a state crime, and have gradually developed a consciousness and vigilance to look out for each other against state-inspired violence.

These efforts have not been without consequences. Fadia says she and her colleagues have been threatened together with their families, and that she continues to be randomly followed and her phones tapped. She says as women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in a deeply patriarchal society, they’re even more endangered because the society does not believe they should have any rights at all, much less a voice.

“The day women rise in Sudan, patriarchy will fall because it thrives on subjugating women. And that’s why those like us are harassed because the system fears that we will awaken and empower other women to rise up and refuse to be dominated,” she says.

Nonetheless, Fadia is optimistic, the growing women and youth agitation is unstoppable: “This spirit and desire for change, I have never seen it before. Young people are willing to die for a better country every day!  It is inspiring. All they need is to be empowered more,” she notes.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pamela Angwench Judith

For most of her life, Pamela Angwech’s existence has always been a defiant and simultaneous act of survival and resistance. In 1976 when she was born, the anti-Amin movement was gathering pace, and her family was one of the earliest victims of the then dictatorship’s reprisals in Northern Uganda. Her father, a passionate educationist in Kitgum district was one of the most vocal critics of the dictatorship’s human rights excesses, which made him an obvious target of the state’s marauding vigilantes.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Joseph Oleshangay

As a human rights lawyer and advocate with the High Court of the United Republic of Tanzania, Joseph Moses Oleshangay spends most of his time crossing from one court to another, litigating human rights cases, some with life-altering implications for ordinary people. It is a monumental responsibility, one he never envisaged growing up.

As a young boy born into a Maasai household in northern Tanzania, his entire childhood revolved around cattle: “Our entire livelihood revolved around cattle. As a child, the main preoccupation was to tend to cows, and my formative years were spent grazing cattle around Endulen. It a simple lifestyle,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Julia Onyoti

The situation of South Sudan’s women and girls remains one of those enduring blights on the country’s conscience. The country retains the unenviable reputation of having the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, and at 51.5%, one of the highest cases of child marriages. It is even worse with gender-based violence(GBV): A 2019 study by UNICEF found that one in every two South Sudan women have experienced intimate partner violence, while a recent UN study, alarmed at the widespread nature of conflict-related sexual violence in the country, in which women are tread as “spoils of war” described it as “a hellish existence for women and girls.

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.

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