Human rights defender of the month (January 2019): Yared Hailemariam

Yared Hailemariam is an Ethiopian human rights defender (HRD), and the Executive Director of the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE), a non-governmental and non-partisan organisation based in Brussels and Geneva, founded by activists that fled the country and other members of the Ethiopian diaspora. He served as a lead investigator at the Ethiopia Human Rights Council (HRCO) for seven years before being forced into exile in the aftermath of the heavily contested 2005 election in the country.
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The post-2005 period saw a massive crackdown on civil society through the enactment of draconian legislation, and the implementation of two states of emergency that allowed for the brutal repression of thousands of demonstrators, journalists, and HRDs. During this time, AHRE, based in exile, focused on advocacy, protection and capacity-building for Ethiopian HRDs, and producing research highlighting the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia.

However, when the reformist agenda of the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed began to manifest in 2018, Hailemariam decided it was safe to head home after more than 13 years in exile. In January 2019, he helped organise a civil society meeting and workshop in Addis Ababa which brought together national and international civil society organisations (CSOs) to forge a path forward after years of restrictions and repression.

“This is a huge chance for civil society. Because of bad laws and the previous government, our work was totally crippled and paralysed, but there are many good signs that our presence is welcome like it wasn’t before. It’s a bright future for civil society as a result of these changes.”

Hailemariam hopes to help rebuild civil society in Ethiopia by bringing together HRDs returning from exile with the few CSOs that were able to remain in the country and weather the storm. He says that while the new reforms are positive, these changes must trickle down to institutions and the general citizenry for them to be real and long lasting.

“The head is moving, but the legs are not. Civic reforms don’t affect the real day to day situations like unemployment or access to healthcare, so the government needs to act quickly to make real institutional reforms. Unless the whole body starts moving together, it will seriously affect the political reform.
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He acknowledges that the real struggle will be to rebuild the capacity of a civil society sector decimated by brain drain and financial insecurity. However, he hopes that with a bit of tenacity and good networking, HRDs in the country can come together before the planned 2020 elections and engage in civic education to prepare Ethiopia for a brighter, more democratic future.

The real challenge for civil society is now.
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It’s a new chapter.

See more HRDs of the Month

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.

“I grew up in a society where ageism and sexism were so entrenched. As a young person, you weren’t supposed to give your opinion on public issues, especially if you were a woman. Women who dared to speak up were caricatured and branded as frustrated, unmarriageable prostitutes, all designed to shut them up,” she says.

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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