Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onesmo Olengurumwa

Protecting human rights is Onesmo Olengurumwa’s passion. When his secondary school lacked access to water and was threatened with closure, Onesmo successfully rallied his fellow students together and protested for their right to education. While at university, he was the human rights association’s president. Following his experience with the Legal and Human Rights Centre, Onesmo was appointed the national coordinator of the Tanzanian Human Rights Defender Coalition (THRDC), which was founded in 2013 in cooperation with DefendDefenders. Becoming a human rights defender (HRD) was not really a conscious choice, but just the natural course of Onesmo’s life.

I did not start championing human rights because of employment, I started this at secondary school and we were not paid. I am extremely passionate about my human rights work, whether they pay me or not,” Onesmo tells us. But this passion does not make for an easy life: “I chose this work, knowing that it’s risky and I’ve faced a lot of difficulties. My house was surveilled and at one point I had to be evacuated internally. Life is not independent and free.”

I did not start championing human rights because of employment, I started this at secondary school and we were not paid. I am extremely passionate about my human rights work, whether they pay me or not. I chose this work, knowing that it’s risky and I’ve faced a lot of difficulties. My house was surveilled and at one point I had to be evacuated internally. Life is not independent and free.

Tanzania’s human rights situation is rapidly deteriorating, in the lead up to its general elections scheduled for 28 October, with reports that opposition party members have been arrested, media  increasingly restricted, and NGOs not only limited in their ability to monitor the elections but also facing a severe crackdown. THRDC has sorely felt the consequences: on 12 August Onesmo was summoned by police and released on a bail of 400,000 Tanzanian shillings (about 170 USD). THRDC’s bank accounts have been frozen – since August. THRDC has only been able to carry out activities not requiring funding and the staff has had to work without salaries. THRDC is not the only organisation facing such difficulties, Onesmo says: “We see a lot of different moves that restrict the work of civil society at this time until the elections are done. Many NGOs are scared, there is a lot of self-censorship. The vibrance we used to see in HRDs is no longer there, because of the current political environment. And those who boldly continue – well, you’ve seen what’s happened to us. Everything is in a very big shamble right now.”

We see a lot of different moves that restrict the work of civil society at this time until the elections are done. Many NGOs are scared, there is a lot of self-censorship. The vibrance we used to see in HRDs is no longer there, because of the current political environment. And those who boldly continue – well, you’ve seen what’s happened to us. Everything is in a very big shamble right now.

Yet, he calls on fellow HRDs not to lose hope and continue their work: “whatever we are undergoing today is temporary. The moment the political environment changes, our working environment will normalise, and we can pick up our work.” He hopes to be able to count on the support and solidarity from regional and international actors and calls on them to remind the Tanzanian government of HRDs’ legal rights to exercise their work.

Onesmo’s unrelenting optimism has caused concern with his friends and family. They regularly hold interventions to ask him to stop his human rights work. But protecting human rights is Onesmo’s calling, he cannot imagine a life in which he is not an HRD: “there are many ways to be in trouble. I could be in a car accident tomorrow and that would be the end of my life. My motto is: ‘once a human rights defender, always a human rights defender.’ Human rights is my calling and I need to take it to the end. And the end of it, is the day I die.”

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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