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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.  Fearing for his life and that of his young family, he escaped North, to Sudan, leaving behind his wife, then pregnant with Pamela, to follow him as soon as she could. It was on the treacherous journey to rejoin her father that Pamela was born, somewhere between Uganda and Sudan, and named Angwench, an Acholi word to mean “on the run,” in keeping with the circumstances of her birth.

Unfortunately, those precarious circumstances would continue to define most of Angwech’s childhood. Although Amin was eventually overthrown, paving way for her family’s return home, the immediate post-Amin years were equally tumultuous, and when President Museveni’s National Resistance Army took power in 1986, Northern Uganda was immediately engulfed in a civil war by the Lord’s Resistance Army(LRA) rebels that would rage on for the next 20 years, bringing wanton anguish and suffering to the region’s people and communities.

Angwench navigated those precarious circumstances to pursue an education, convinced that only then could she impact her community for the better. At University, she studied Gender and Women Studies and immediately returned home to seek work with the UN’s World Food Program Office in Gulu, determined to join the relief effort to alleviate the suffering of her people in Internally Displaced People’s (IDP)Camps.

Initially, they told me there was no job. But I was determined to work with the UN and nowhere else. So, I camped at their office for 14 straight days. Sometimes, I would volunteer as a gatekeeper when the substantive gatekeeper was away, and other times, I would sit at the front patch of the Office Head the whole day. When they realized I was determined not to leave, they allowed me to start officially volunteering with them. “I would go with them to distribute food in the IDP camps, until later, I was formally integrated as official staff.

Yet, despite her dogged stubbornness and resilience, she was not prepared for the heartrending experience of life in the IDPs, particularly the plight of women and girls.

“I started to notice that after picking their food rations, women and children would start picking residue beans from the floor, to take for either their little children or their elderly parents who could not queue. One other time, I noticed a visibly tired woman carrying a baby on her back, being pushed out of the queue by others. I called her to the front and assured her that I would give her a special ration but asked her to first untie her baby from the back, so she could protect her from the sun and breastfeed her. When she untied her baby, I noticed that the baby’s neck was twisted – it had suffocated and died! That changed me, forever,” Angwech says.

From Humanitarian to Human Rights Activist

Angwech realized that like a balm, humanitarian work could only soothe the suffering of her people but fell short of tackling the root causes of the same suffering. “So I decided that someone had to speak up about the heartbreaking indignity and human rights violations surrounding the conflict in Northern Uganda. I turned full scale, from a humanitarian to a human rights activist, particularly championing the rights of women who were most vulnerable “she says.  

Angwech would move on the streets rallying women to stand up for their rights, holding placards signaling injustices against women in IDP camps like molestation and rape. Overtime, she won followers: Emboldened by her courage and audacity, other women started to show up and speak up against the conflict and related violence. Angwech mobilized grassroot women groups to pursue LRA leader Joseph Kony in Congo’s Garamba forest, to dramatize their cries for peace, under UN resolution 13/25 which provides for women’s participation in peace processes. 

“These women camped in Garamba forest, removed their blouses, and cried out to the rebels, saying, “You’re all our children, be it you or the UPDF you’re fighting. Whoever is killed, it is us the mothers who suffer. So, listen to us and stop the war.” This was the first time that the rebels listened to women, and neither raped nor abducted them. Instead, they escorted them back to Gulu,” she says.

In 2004, Angwech started Gulu Women’s Economic Development & Globalization (GWED-G) to rehabilitate victims of the war, from victims of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence to those physically harmed by the conflict.  Since then, Angwech says GWED-G has rehabilitated over 1700 war victims through physical rehabilitation projects, giving them prosthesis, among other forms of support. It has also continued to sensitise and organise grassroot women into human rights defenders’ groups, through which they can report and address GBV cases, issues of women economic rights among others. Today, Angwech says there are about 600 of these groups across Gulu, Lamwo, Amuru and Kitgum, each with a membership of 30 -40 members.    

Today, GWED-G is arguably the largest grassroots human rights organisation in Northern Uganda. It has also expanded to cover other social and economic causes, including environmental protection advocacy. Angwech says the environment is the local communities’ last refugee, and yet deforestation and charcoal burning are threatening it.  “For post-conflict communities like us in Northern Uganda, land is our primary resource. It is the land from which people make an income to feed their families, send their children to school, and access medical care. War destroyed everything else. So, if we don’t protect the environment, our land will be degraded, rainy seasons will begin to change which will affect food production and bring back hunger,” 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.