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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 educated ones, lack even the basic skills in 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.

A data and tech-enthusiast, Daphne joined DefendDefenders in 2019, having trained as a software engineer and apprenticed as a private tech-preneur with Engero, a company she co-founded with her partner.

Nine years earlier, Immaculate had joined the same organisation as an Information Technology intern from St. Lawrence University.  She quickly gelled in – providing general ICT maintenance support for DefendDefenders staff and human rights defenders in need, so efficiently that she was confirmed as full-time staff at the end of her internship.                 

Together, they are today fondly known as DefendDefenders’ “women in tech,” overseeing the organisation’s tech flagship programs – Safe Sisters and Ttaala. The former is a fellowship program specially tailored for WHRDs that skills and equips them to respond to digital security challenges they face in their work and daily life, while the latter seeks to enable HRDs and organisations to scale their work through the use of relevant digital tools and strategies.

Daphne and Immaculate are at the heart of both programs, and have over the years conducted tens of trainings, equipping WHRDs with life-saving skills to pushback against cyber threats and harassment and supporting organisations to optimize digital tools for greater efficiency and effectiveness in their work. 

“So far, we have commissioned 10 groups of safe sisters, composed of over 50 members that have gone through our training,” says Immaculate.

The programs’ beneficiaries are not limited to Uganda alone. Many of them have been drawn from other countries within the East and Horn of Africa and have gone on to replicate similar initiatives in their respective countries.

Lourdes Walusala is one such beneficiary. A radio producer at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, she was a victim and survivor of online gender-based violence when she learned of and signed up for DefendDefenders’ safe sisters’ fellowship. After the year-long fellowship, she collaborated with the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) to conduct a digital security training for women journalists with the aim of equipping them with practical skills to enhance their online safety. In 2019, she produced a digital security fact sheet for AMWIK, which helps users to identify abusive behavior online and offers practical suggestions on how to confront it.   

Lourdes’ story is similar to that of Zaituni Njovu from Tanzania. A 2017 Safe Sister alumni, she went on to co-found Zaina Foundation – a not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to empower women in Technology in Tanzania. She has since become a fully-fledged digital security trainer, using her foundation to raise awareness on digital security for Tanzania’s women journalists, and was at the forefront of monitoring internet shutdowns towards Tanzania’s 2020 presidential election.

“It is such testimonies that keep us going,” says Daphne, adding, “Knowing that someone feels safer out there as they go about their work because of your efforts, or that they’re replicating what they’ve learned in their communities to empower even more people is fulfilling.”

The conversation on women in ICT could not have been better timed.  This month, the world commemorated the annual International Women’s Day 2023, with a call for worldwide action to eliminate the digital gender gap and to put in place systems that incentivize more women into tech spaces. Supported by Daphne and Immaculate, DefendDefenders curated a similar online campaign to #EndTheDigitalGenderGap.  Immaculate says we can do more to make this global aspiration a reality:

“A lot still needs to be done. Part of the problem we have to confront is the stereotype that ICT is essentially a man’s field. We need to challenge this by covering women-in-tech champions more, so that young girls can grow up knowing that they too can be leaders in tech. For those already out there, we need to collectively commit to making it safe for them to express themselves without the fear of cyber harassment. It can be done,” Immaculate says.

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.