Human Rights Defender of the Month: Vanessa Tsehaye

Vanessa Tsehaye started her work as a human rights defender (HRD) at an early age: at 16, she founded a high school group in support of imprisoned Eritrean journalist Seyoum Tsehaye. Seven years later, the same diaspora organisation, One Day Seyoum, is one of Eritrea’s leading human rights organisations – spear-headed by the now 23-year old Vanessa. 

The man for whom it was founded, Seyoum, is Vanessa’s uncle. The journalist was arrested in 2001 during a crackdown on critics and non-governmental media. For 19 years now, Seyoum has been a prisoner of conscience, held without trial and under inhumane conditions, like so many others. “The Eritrean situation is very unique. In these past 19 years, very few things have changed for the better, if any,” says Vanessa. “Maybe it’s comparable to North Korea, this situation where opposition and civil society are completely banned and unable to operate within the country. Only people on the outside can mobilize and campaign. It’s very tricky, because it’s much easier to mobilize people within a country to organize mass protests.”

The Eritrean situation is very unique. In these past 19 years, very few things have changed for the better, if any. Maybe it’s comparable to North Korea, this situation where opposition and civil society are completely banned and unable to operate within the country. Only people on the outside can mobilise and campaign. It’s very tricky, because it’s much easier to mobilise people within a country to organise mass protests.

Yet, One Day Seyoum has evolved from a Swedish high school group to one of the leading Eritrean human rights organisations. “We can’t wait for things to open in Eritrea to start. There is value in doing things from outside the country as well,” says Vanessa. “Building capacity outside of the country is the most important thing we can do.”

One Day Seyoum’s main aim is to raise awareness about human rights violations in Eritrea and mobilise people to get involved. Recently, One Day Seyoum called on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to extend the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea and maintain its scrutiny of the human rights situation in the country, together with DefendDefenders and partners. This follows years of international advocacy. In March 2019, the HRC invited Vanessa to speak on a panel during a debate on Eritrea’s human rights situation.

Currently, One Day Seyoum is working on different initiatives, including a refugee clinic supporting Eritrean refugees worldwide and campaigns on Eritrean issues targeting institutions or individuals. They will also soon launch a media channel to inform about the situation in Eritrea, targeted at non-Eritreans, Eritreans born in the diaspora and Eritreans born after independence. Especially the younger generation – those born after Eritrean independence in 1991 – often only have limited knowledge of their own country’s history. “This is a generation that knows barely anything about what happened with the democracy movement – that was killed very quickly in 2001 – or generally about the nature of the Eritrean regime outside of their own experiences. Their generation was deprived of that, because of the regime’s extreme censorship,” Vanessa says.

People are very scared to speak out against the Eritrean government. They are scared of the consequences for their families back home, but also of losing their position in the exiled community. The government has quite a strong grip on local communities across the world. Even if you’re not in Eritrea, you can still feel this grip, and you can get isolated.

The government’s power reaches far beyond the borders of Eritrea. Even in the diaspora, Vanessa is regularly confronted with online hate speech on social media because of her human rights work. These hate messages often come in waves, making it likely they are part of a larger strategy, though it is unclear who is behind them. It could be the Eritrean government, but it could also be other exiled Eritreans. “People are very scared to speak out against the Eritrean government. They are scared of the consequences for their families back home, but also of losing their position in the exiled community. The government has quite a strong grip on local communities across the world. Even if you’re not in Eritrea, you can still feel this grip, and you can get isolated,” Vanessa explains.

But the severity of the situation keeps Vanessa going: “I was lucky to be born outside of Eritrea, the situation of Eritreans within the country and of those who are fleeing is just unbearable. I really feel like the least I can do is raise my voice and try to help.”

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Esther Tawiah

In Ghana, Esther Tawiah is one of the loudest voices for women empowerment and gender. It is also why she is one of the most loathed. Born and raised in New-Tafo in the country’s eastern region, Esther grew up surrounded by a culture that frowned at the idea of women participating in public affairs, and witnessed firsthand, the backlash those who dared to challenge that cultural norm faced.

“I grew up in a society where ageism and sexism were so entrenched. As a young person, you weren’t supposed to give your opinion on public issues, especially if you were a woman. Women who dared to speak up were caricatured and branded as frustrated, unmarriageable prostitutes, all designed to shut them up,” she says.

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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