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. 

“My sister and I grew up seeing our father abuse our mother physically and emotionally, until he abandoned us altogether. So, my mother had to do odd jobs to fend for us, and I ended up dropping out of school, becoming a teenage mother myself, trying to support her. In the end, the accumulation of this abuse took a toll on my mother until she eventually died. I come with such emotional baggage to this, which enables me to connect deeply with other victims of gender-based violence (GBV) and other related injustices,” she says

That experience has since fueled Margaret’s resolve, determined to ensure that as many women as possible have better life options than her own mother was able to access. She studied law at university and was initially employed as a government Prosecutor with Liberia’s Anti-Corruption Commission. “I interacted regularly with women who were abandoned by their husbands, those who were abused, and in them, I saw my mother – I knew that without help, they too would probably suffer her fate. So, I decided to reach out – to help them.”

Margaret resigned her well-paying job, and started offering probono services for these women in distress. In 2017, she started a social initiative; Her Voice Liberia, through which she set out to campaign for the defense of women’s rights. Two years later, realizing the insufficient access to justice for especially Liberia’s women at the grassroots, she started Her Voice Legal Aid mobile clinic, through which she would go to villages, listen to women’s justice issues, and pursue justice for as many as she could.

In 2020, with the advent of COVID-19 and the world-wide stay home restrictions, Liberia, like elsewhere saw a marked increase in GBV cases, and demand for Her voice Legal Clinic’s services shoot through the roof. Women in distress would send signals and Her Voice Legal clinic would go to their rescue, including providing temporary shelter to women who were living with abusers and needed relocation.  They would also prosecute cases in courts which were open but inaccessible by ordinary people due to restrictions in movement.

Despite the clinic’s work taking up most of her time, Margaret was not bothered. In fact, she says, she was deriving fulfillment from her and the clinic’s efforts, because that is the role her mother would have wanted her to play:

So far, Her voice Legal Aid Clinic has offered legal support to over 900 women in Liberia. The team has also expanded, and now has a total of six female volunteer lawyers who are offering services. This month, supported by OSIWA – Open Society Initiative of West Africa, Legal Aid Clinic will be launching mobile legal booths at eight magisterial courts in rural Liberia. The booths will have a legal aid officer, a psychosocial worker/counsellor, and a lawyer that will work closely with prosecutors to make them more effective in prosecuting GBV cases and other human rights issues.

“Despite the significant strides made, Margaret says demand for their services remains more than their capacity to meet it. “Getting more volunteer lawyers to offer pro-bono services is difficult. Lawyers make a lot of money representing people, so asking them to devote themselves to free work is difficult ,” she says.

Overall, though, Margaret acknowledges there are visible gains that have been made. Her initiative has stirred up a sort-of social revolution against GBV in Liberia’s countryside, and women are more assertive of their rights. For Margaret, this consciousness is a far-bigger achievement than she ever imagined when starting out.  Her efforts have also won her the humbled recognition of her father, – one of Liberia’s most recognizable lawyers, who has since signed up to her legal aid clinic. It’s his way of trying to make up for the abuse and abandonment he subjected Margaret and her sister to. 

For Margaret, anchored on by her mother’s painful memory, the journey has just begun: 

“I always see myself as a survivor. I never had the opportunity for people to come and talk to my mother to help her stand her emotional and physical distress that finally claimed her life. So, I come with empathy – I see every suffering woman as my mother. I want a better life for them. And it’s something that I enjoy – I fill fulfilled doing this work. When a woman smiles, I am encouraged to support more. Sometimes, they bring me chicken, goats, and whatever else they can afford. And it gives me so much joy” she says.

See more HRDs of the Month

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.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Godfrey Kagaayi

Born 33 years ago, in Bukoba, northern Tanzania, Godfrey Kagaayi did not have to look elsewhere for inspiration to tackle the daunting challenge of mental health. By his own admission, the family and community in which he was raised were fertile grounds for the same.
His family had crossed the border into Uganda when he was barely 5 months, settling into present day Rakai district. But the Rakai of the 90s was a difficult place for a child to make their earliest memories: In 1990, Uganda’s first ever case of HIV/AIDs was reported in the district, setting off a decade of suffering and anguish for many of its residents. Taking advantage of the Rakai’s fishing and polygamous lifestyle, the novel virus spread like wildfire, killing people in droves and leaving untold heartache in its wake.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid

Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid is one of the lucky survivors of Sudan’s latest conflict.

He was born 36 years ago, in Almalha locality, North Darfur state, the third born in a family of 10. Then, Darfur was not the hot bed of war and conflict it has since become infamous for. Although the region, predominantly inhabited by Sudan’s black population remained segregated by the predominantly Arab government in Khartoum, its people co-existed in thriving, predominantly subsistence communities. In Almalha, people reared camels and cattle, while others tended crops. The community was also famed for its hospitality to strangers, welcoming outsiders who ended up staying, owning land, and intermarrying with their hosts.

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 the literate are not exposed to the idea of 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.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Mary Pais Da Silva

On 17 February 2023, in Ethiopia’s rustic resort of Bishoftu, more than 5000Km from her homeland, Mary Da Silva was announced winner of the 2023 AfricanDefenders Shield Award, in the presence of hundreds of colleague human rights defenders from 36 African countries. It was a fitting validation for the Eswatini human rights lawyer, whose sense of empathy and sensitivity to injustice has been a defining hallmark of her career.
Born 45 years ago in Lubombo, eastern Eswatini, the last of 4 siblings, Mary attributes her values to her upbringing. Although she was born in Eswatini, her parents are originally from Mozambique, and only relocated to eSwatini at the start of the Mozambican civil war that lasted between 1977-1992, which ravaged families and displaced many others.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Jane Naini Meriwas

Like many African societies, The Samburu community in Northern Kenya is a gerontocracy – a very hierarchical community in which elders hold sway over almost all private and public matters. Among these predominantly pastoral nomads, very little importance is attached to the young – especially young girls, who are barely given a chance at education and often married off before their first menstrual cycle, but not before they undergo mandatory Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
It is in this community that Jane Naini Meriwas was born 46 years ago, in Kipsing village, Oldonyiro Subcounty, Isiolo County. When she was 16, her mother passed on, and she watched with great trepidation as her father planned to marry another wife, not sure what that would mean for her or her ambitions for school. As it turned out, fate was on her side. When her father uncharacteristically asked what she thought of his plans, Jane seized the opportunity to stand up for herself and interests: