Human Rights Defender of the Month (July 2019): Gladys Mmari

Gladys Mmari is a driven Tanzanian human rights defender (HRD), and the founder of MAFGE (Male Advocacy For Gender Equality) – a non-governmental organisation (NGO) focused on women empowerment through educating both women and men. “So much of the work that I do is cultural conversation. We have grown up talking about these issues among women, but now, I have to work with men as well – making it more challenging,” Mmari stresses.

She fosters the idea that male voices should be heard, and educated, in women’s rights, and that it is important to establish an equitable understanding between the genders, while breaking down gender stereotypes. “We need to stop romanticising the idea of women empowerment, and co-empower one another to achieve the goals of an equal world,” Mmari affirms. 

After obtaining a law degree, she worked as a human rights researcher in Tanzania, with a focus on the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and indigenous rights. Then, she worked for AfricAid, an NGO specialised in cultivating leadership in young women and girls. She recalls a young boy who, following one of her sessions, asked her why he could not participate in the dialogues. He also wanted to boost women and girls’ rights. “It was a turning point for me,” Mmari says. “The time has come to work together and empower each other to revisit the many socio-cultural constraints that have stopped us from equality.” Her organisation MAFGE was hereby born.

She pinpoints numerous challenges faced in her work. “It is challenging to mobilise men to join, to ensure impact to women empowerment.” Furthermore, “most organisations that deal with women empowerment want to fund women organisations. And they do not want to see men in women organisations.”

She also points out the political situation in Tanzania as a great hurdle. Political rallies in the state deviate and misconceive the importance of HRDs, putting them at risk. As she expresses a sincere concern for Tanzanian HRDs, she mentions that the government is currently registering all NGOs under a single entity. “Here there is potential importance of this initiative, as this could be used for something productive such as acting as a more centralised human rights platform allowing more structured approaches, information passage, and funding opportunities. It is a step forward, unless it is a political interest”.

Gladys will continue to fight for women’s rights. “Women are born into unequal societies, and their achievements are unacknowledged and their potential left untapped [..] I can imagine my children and grandchildren living in a world with equal rights, and that they’ll get the opportunities and securities that I missed as a woman. That’s what keeps me going.”

Through MAFGE, she is also running a crowdfunding campaign, to strengthen gender equality in Tanzania. 

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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