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: 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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