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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.   

One such advocate is Rita Kahsay. Born only 24 years ago in Adwa, Central Tigray, she developed a keen sensitivity to inequality and injustice at an early age: The Irob community in which she was born is an indigenous minority in Tigray and was often in short supply of social amenities from clean water to decent housing.

“My mother often made room in our one-room house to shelter other people who didn't have anywhere to sleep, and she always encouraged us to share the little we had with them. The first time I visited my dad’s parents, in rural Irob, where my grandmother still lives, there was no clean water, and she would make ridiculous efforts to find some (clean water) for us. These experiences opened my eyes to the inequality all around us from an early age,” she says.

But inequality was not the only issue that would trouble Rita’s early years. A year after she was born, war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea over the border town of Badme, causing a lot of insecurity for border communities and displacing hundreds of others. Rita’s family was one of those endangered by the war, and in 2000, her father left for the United Kingdom (UK), where he was joined by the rest of the family six years later.

In the UK, Rita pursued Chemical Engineering at University, determined to return to Ethiopia, to work on enabling greater access to safe water for her Irob community in Tigray. But this was not to be. In November 2020, fighting broke out in Tigray between the TPLF-led regional government and Ethiopian Federal Government, after the former insisted on holding regional elections the latter had decreed against.  

The next two years were the most devasting the region has had. To subdue the TPLF, the federal government blockaded Tigray, cut off water and electricity supply, disconnected the internet, and blocked food and medical supplies from entering the region. The result was a humanitarian catastrophe, with a later study finding that at the peak of the conflict, between 400 -900 people died from starvation daily. But hunger was not the only weapon of war used against the Tigrayans. Rita says the federal government troops weaponized rape and sexual violence.   

“One of the most reprehensible aspects of the war on Tigray was the use of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), as a weapon of war and genocide. Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces used a combination of rape, sexual slavery, enforced impregnation and enforced sterilization to subdue the Tigrayan population. Due to the information blockade imposed by the federal government, the exact number of survivors is uncertain, but Conservative estimates suggest that at least 120,000 women and girls were made victims of CRSV in Tigray in 2021,” she says.

Anguished by the suffering of her people and determined to not let the Ethiopian Government succeed in covering it up, Rita joined the advocacy front of those seeking to expose the human rights violations associated with the war in a bid to provoke the world’s revulsion against the atrocities and to hold perpetrators accountable. Over the last three years, she has worked with various public interest litigation organisations collecting evidence of rights violations and gathering testimonies of victims, to enable future prosecution of those responsible.

“It (her advocacy work) may not restore all that has been lost for the people of Tigray, but hopefully can ensure that somebody gets to be held accountable for the crimes committed. We cannot cover up the crimes and move on as if nothing happens. There can never be peace without justice,” she says.

Rita is particularly incensed by the sexual violence and the enduring damage it will have on Tigrayan women, girls and their families. Last year, she spoke at the 73rd Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human Rights in The Gambia and addressed the European Union Parliament on how sexual violence was weaponized against Tigrayan women and girls and called for a thorough investigation to that effect. In the meantime, she and her colleagues are painstakingly researching and documenting stories of victims, which they this year published in a book; In Plain Sight: Sexual Violence in the Tigray Conflict. The book is now available on Amazon and costs $7.95, and Rita says proceeds will go towards rehabilitating the victims of sexual violence.

For her relentless advocacy, Rita has been routinely threatened, both physically and online. But she says, giving up is not an option for her:

“I must speak up for the vulnerable and marginalised. It is a responsibility those of us privileged with an education and access must shoulder. I want the culture that enables sexual and gender-based violence to end. I want state impunity to end, to see states go back to being the promoters and protectors of rights they’re supposed to be, and not the perpetrators of human rights violations that they have become,” she says.

See more HRDs of the Month

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.

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.