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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: Apollo Mukasa

Apollo Mukasa’s journey into activism is deeply rooted in his commitment to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). As the Executive Director of Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD), Apollo is a driving force behind initiatives aimed at combating discrimination among PWDs. UNAPD was established in 1998 as a platform for voicing concerns of persons with physical disabilities to realise a barrier free environment where they can enjoy their rights to the fullest.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Leon Ntakiyiruta

As a child, Leon wanted to be a magistrate – whom he saw as agents of justice. Born in 1983 in Burundi’s Southern province, he came of age at a time of great social and political upheaval in the East African country. In 1993 when Leon was barely 10, Burundi was besieged by a civil war that would last for the next 12 years until 2005, characterized by indiscriminate violence and gross human rights abuses in which over 300,000 people are estimated to have died.In 2012, still struggling to find her footing in Kampala, Aida was introduced to DefendDefenders, where she was introduced to the organisation’s resource center, and assured, it (the center) would be at her disposal whenever she needed to use it.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Aida Musa

In August 2011, Aida crossed into Uganda, pregnant, and barely able to communicate in another language other than Arabic. The transition was a difficult one, she says: “It was my first-time outside Sudan, and yet I did not know any other language. The first months were very difficult.”
In 2012, still struggling to find her footing in Kampala, Aida was introduced to DefendDefenders, where she was introduced to the organisation’s resource center, and assured, it (the center) would be at her disposal whenever she needed to use it.

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.