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Human Rights Defender of the month:Mary Pais Da Silva

On 17 February 2023, in Ethiopia’s rustic resort of Bishoftu, more than 5000Km from her homeland,  Mary Da Silva was announced winner of the 2023 AfricanDefenders Shield Award, in the presence of hundreds of colleague human rights defenders from 36 African countries.  It was a fitting validation for the Eswatini human rights lawyer, whose sense of empathy and sensitivity to injustice has been a defining hallmark of her career.       

Born 45 years ago in Lubombo, eastern Eswatini, the last of 4 siblings, Mary attributes her values to her upbringing. Although she was born in Eswatini, her parents are originally from Mozambique, and only relocated to eSwatini at the start of the Mozambican civil war that lasted between 1977-1992, which ravaged families and displaced many others. As one of the earliest to escape and settle in Eswatini, Mary’s family shouldered the responsibility of being a gateway for many other Mozambicans escaping the violence in their country for a more peaceful and stable livelihood in Southern Africa. This experience was illuminating for Mary:      

“Everyone was welcome in our home. Several times, we had to host people staying over for long periods of time as they tried to start all over again, having lost everything in the civil war back home. They would be in so much anguish, and we were required to go out of our way to make their transition as less distressing as possible. So I grew up with a keen sensitivity to injustice and people’s pain, regardless of who they were or where they were coming from. I was raised to see everybody as a human being first, with the same needs,” she says.

That passion for justice would drive her to study law for her undergraduate studies at the University of Eswatini, from which she was admitted to the Eswatini bar in 2003. Once in practice however, the idealistic promise of law as a tool for justice soon clashed with the cynical reality in her country, when she realized that justice was a product to be afforded, not a service available to all.

“I realized that the law only worked for those who could afford a lawyer, and that justice remained firmly out of reach for the majority poor. This was dispiriting, and I could not in good conscience continue to practice commercial law, serving a minority in a country where the majority remained helpless, “she says.

Mary then decided to prioritise public interest cases, mostly about women and children’s rights issues, serving a clientele that for the most part could not afford to pay for her services. Here, she mostly handled cases of women seeking divorces from their abusive partners, child-support for abandoned children, or seeking to enforce their rights to land. It is in this space that she met the now deceased Thulani Maseko, a fellow human rights lawyer and passionate advocate for justice, who invited her to join a network of likeminded human rights lawyers called Lawyers for human rights. 

Mary eventually joined the Lawyers for Human Rights team in 2012, and together with colleagues, decided to use their platform to wholly advance the cause of human rights. By then, however, she was already a marked attorney. At the time, she was a leading attorney in case where three Eswatini youth who were charged with terrorism for allegedly petrol bombing houses belonging to two members of parliament and a senior police officer, for which she was constantly trailed and threatened. The previous year, in 2011, she was one of the prominent figures behind the lawyers’ boycott of the country’s courts protesting the judiciary’s lack of independence.

“This made my litigation work with Lawyers for Human Rights difficult,” she says, adding, “I was losing all my cases, not because I was not competent, but because I was the ‘wrong’ attorney. I had become a target not only for the government, but also eSwatini’s then-chief justice, whose resignation we had called for in the court boycott. So, I thought, I am doing an injustice to my clients to persist in practice, when the courts are already biased against me.”

Frustrated with litigation, Mary decided to withdraw and focus all her energies to fulltime human rights advocacy and to pursue a safe working environment for human rights defenders.

In 2021, Mary was shot at as she left court where two members of parliament were being charged with subversion for their role in the students’ protests demanding for parliamentary democracy in eSwatini that rocked the country in June that year. She escaped unhurt, but it was the murder, in cold blood, of her comrade and friend, Thulani Maseko, on 21 January 2023, that shook her hard. She says, she has not yet recovered from it, nor fully processed her grief.

Mary eventually joined the Lawyers for Human Rights team in 2012, and together with colleagues, decided to use their platform to wholly advance the cause of human rights. By then, however, she was already a marked attorney. At the time, she was a leading attorney in case where three Eswatini youth who were charged with terrorism for allegedly petrol bombing houses belonging to two members of parliament and a senior police officer, for which she was constantly trailed and threatened. The previous year, in 2011, she was one of the prominent figures behind the lawyers’ boycott of the country’s courts protesting the judiciary’s lack of independence.

See more HRDs of the Month

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.

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.

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