Human Rights Defender of the Month: Meskerem  Geset Techane

Meskerem Geset Techane has fought injustice since she can remember: as a child she was known to stand up for herself and others, whether against bullies, teachersher parents or church. Fighting injustice and promoting human rights is a common theme in the lawyer’s life. “It’s a passion, promoting human rights is not something you choose to do for a living or as a career opportunity. It’s more of a calling for me.”  

A calling that has led Meskerem to impressive places. In Ethiopia, she served as a High Court Judge, worked as a pro-bono lawyer, and founded or spearheaded several civil society initiatives, most recently Lawyers for Human Rights and TIMRAN (She Leads). At the African level, she worked with African Union human rights bodies and African human rights lawyers. She initiated a continent-wide effort on human rights lawyering and strategic litigation. Meskerem is also active at the international level: she is currently a UN Human Rights Council’s distinguished Rapporteur mandate holder appointed with a global mandate in the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls. Meskerem does it all: not only does she simultaneously work on the national, African, and international level, she also works on a multitude of human rights topics. The rights of women and children and their intersectionality with various topics have become a red thread in her work. 

Any opportunity to discredit me is used. When I assert my leadership and demand excellence, men complain that I’m insulting them. They would never say that to the other men in their ‘boy’s club.’ It’s very subtle, but it’s bullying and intimidation attempting to discredit me. Many women human rights defenders face such experiences.

Working in a male-dominated environment, Meskerem is often the only woman in many of the high-level discussions she attends – whether in Addis Ababa, Banjul, or Geneva. Like so many women, she has had to face misogyny: “Any opportunity to discredit me is used. When I assert my leadership and demand excellence, men complain that I’m insulting them. They would never say that to the other men in their ‘boy’s club.’ It’s very subtle, but it’s bullying and intimidation attempting to discredit me. Many women human rights defenders face such experiences.” 

Meskerem finds it particularly disheartening to see this happening within the human rights field: “I like to do value based human rights work where rule of law and accountability begins with us – the HRDs. How can I assert myself as a defender if I don’t live by the values I defend? Human rights need to become our personal values. Accountability starts with us. We can’t ask states for accountability, if we’re not accountable ourselves. We need this integrity as HRDs: we have to do value-based work, value-based advocacy, value-based lawyering to achieve a sustainable culture of human rights.” 

I like to do value based human rights work where rule of law and accountability begins with us – the HRDs. How can I assert myself as a defender if I don’t live by the values I defend? Human rights need to become our personal values. Accountability starts with us. We can’t ask states for accountability, if we’re not accountable ourselves. We need this integrity as HRDs: we have to do value-based work, value-based advocacy, value-based lawyering to achieve a sustainable culture of human rights.

Dealing with human rights violations from around the globe on a daily basis takes its toll on Meskerem. Not only does she take injustice very seriously, she also takes it personally, causing pain and anger. But sometimes it is exactly this anger that energises Meskerem and motivates her to continue. Seeing how other HRDs are silenced and repressed encourages her to use her platform to promote human rights for as long as she can. Her main demand from national, regional, and international actors is to strengthen protective and supportive systems for HRDs – their contribution to society’s collective well-being and safety needs to be respected and protected. 

See more HRDs of the Month

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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