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: Ana Taban

Ana Taban, which means ‘I am Tired’ in Arabic, was established in 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya out of frustration of South Sudanese artists with several issues related to the civil war in the country. This was after another conflict broke out at the Presidential Palace in Juba a few months after the signing of a peace deal.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Jaqueline Mutere

Jaqueline Mutere’s motivation to establish Grace Agenda was a response to the post-election sexual violence of 2007 and 2008 in Kenya. Additionally, as a survivor of sexual violence which resulted into conception of a child, and following the experience of other survivors, Jaqueline identified the need to form an organisation that advocates for reparations for survivors of sexual violence.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Ocen Ivan Kenneth

Ocen Ivan Kenneth is a Program Director at Foundation for Development and Relief Africa (FIDRA), with more than 10 years’ experience working in the human rights field. Ivan’s ambitions for change focus on building inner peace, defending human rights and empowering local communities using theatre and storytelling. He creates a space where people from the community share their personal stories of trauma and resilience as well as identify mechanisms of healing.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Sandra Aceng

Sandra Aceng is an outspoken and energetic woman human rights defender (WHRD). She is a gender and ICT researcher and policy analyst for Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) where she coordinates the Women ICT Advocacy Group, advocating for internet access for all. In addition, she writes on various platforms such as Global Voices, Freedom House, and Impakter Magazine. Her regular contributions to Wikimedia Uganda often focus on profiling WHRDs, female politicians, and journalists.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Chantal Mutamuriza

Chantal Mutamuriza does not wait for problems to be solved. When the Burundian woman human rights defender (WHRD) encounters a problem, she will seek a solution there and then. When hundreds of thousands Burundians had to flee from political unrest in 2015, many of them were stranded in refugee camps with little economic opportunity or access to education. In her problem-solving spirit, Chantal felt compelled to act: she quit her job to put her skills and network to use and founded the NGO Light For All.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Foni Joyce

Foni Joyce has engaged in humanitarian work since the age of 20, when she joined a refugee student organisation to amplify the voices of refugees. Originally from South Sudan, Foni grew up as a refugee in Nairobi, Kenya, but she makes it clear that ‘refugee’ is merely a legal definition: “I firstly define myself as a human being who has been uprooted.”

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, teachers, her 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.”

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