Mama Cash Fund to Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda. Read More
Caption: Brenda Kugonza E.D WHRDNU attending the zoom meeting.
The Human Rights Defenders Law Collaborators’ convened on 21 July 2021 from 11:00am to 12:30pm over a zoom meeting to discuss and get up to speed with how far the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill has advanced. The Bill was moved by Hon. Lyandro Komakech in the 10th Parliament with support from Defenders Protection Initiative which overlooked all the processes of developing, modelling and tabling the bill.
The bill has seconders and collaborators who include
- Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda (WHRDN-U),
- Human Rights Center Uganda,
- USAID Rights and Justice Activity,
- Uganda Human Rights Commission,
- Greater North Parliamentary Forum,
- Chapter Four,
- Action Aid,
- Justice Law and Order Sector,
- Defenders Protection Initiative.
The collaborators’ contributed to the forming of this bill through providing timely research, experiences, finances and coordinating with key committees in parliament to make sure the bill was prepared and read on the floor of parliament. For instance WHRDNU was glad to provide a gender lens to the Bill alluding to the unique harassment Women Human Rights Defenders face doing their work.
‘By the close of the 10th Parliament, the Bill had had its first reading and had been scrutinized by the Human Rights Committee of Parliament and was almost reaching the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee,’ reported Ms. Helen Namyalo from DPI. She also informed collaborators that the latest version of the HRD Protection Bill will be availed to members as soon as possible. This will enable members make informed decisions regarding the Bill.
It was noted with concern that the mover of the bill Hon.Lyandro Komakech had not returned to the 11th parliament. DPI promised to remain in contact with the seconders of the bill to ensure its progress.
Ms. Christine Candiru the Coordinator of Greater North Parliamentary Forum told members at the meeting that the Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Jacob Oulanyah is aware of the two Bills i.e. the Legal Aid Bill and the HRDs’ Protection Bill. He is in full support of the Bills and it was highly hoped that they would be given priority to see that they pass this year (2021).
Members raised questions on how to engage new members of Parliament noting that the bill needed someone with influence to bring other MPs on board in order to pass it. The new Chairperson of the Human Rights Committee Mr. Fox Odoi deputized by Janepher Kyomuhendo were named as key allies in having the Bill passed into law. Media engagements were cited as necessary to provide mileage to our advocacy.
Ms. Brenda Kugonza the E.D. of Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda (WHRDNU) thanked the organizers of the meeting and pledged full support to enhance advocacy to have the bill passed into law. She also noted the importance of having a specific Law that protects Women Human Rights Defenders which will improve the conditions of their work.
Caption: WHRDs from Karamoja pose for a photo after the workshop.
WHRDS from Karamoja region are involved in fighting against GBV, FGM, Widow Inheritance and defending Land and environmental rights, Child rights, women’s rights among others. These are rights that were formally not observed or respected due to cultural and social norms in Karamoja region. For instance, women were inherited as property upon the demise of the husband. A girl had to go through FGM to be considered a “real woman”. Women did not own land and physical battering was looked at as disciplining a woman or a child.
This has made the work of women defenders increasingly difficult as they maneuver cultural norms to fight against violence inflicted on them. It is a difficult battle that can only be won by speaking out to challenge the existing cultural and social norms. Below are some of the challenges they faced in the course of their work.
A child’s rights woman defender from Amudat district followed up on a case where a young girl had been raped and reported it to the police. To her surprise, the police abused her for making sure of an arrest and the parents of the girl only asked for compensation while resisting the arrest of the perpetrator.
A female journalist and woman defender against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) from Kapchorwa district narrated how she was attacked by cultural elders for speaking out against FGM. They claimed that it was their cultural norm and a rite of passage to womanhood for their girls in the Sabiny culture. This forced the woman defender to abandon her work in the region for two years as she sought asylum in a new location. It is important to note that girls who underwent FGM suffered excruciating pain, swellings and keloids in their private parts.
In addition, a human rights defender for women’s rights went through an ordeal where she lost her husband and his relatives wanted to take all property she jointly owned with him. She immediately reported the case to Uganda Law Society and got legal support. It could have gone sour if she hadn’t quickly reached out to a legal organization for help.
Another woman defender for reproductive rights recalled an incident where a pregnant woman died due to negligence of the nurse in charge of the labor ward that day. She reported the nurse who was later arrested and taken into custody. This made other medical staff skeptical and they singled her out as a problematic person. They later on refused to give her any medical assistance since that incident yet she was only doing her work as a Human rights defender.
Following the above challenges, the women defenders had a training in Moroto district where they were trained in networking, advocacy and lobbying strategies to enable them build supportive networks among themselves, advocate for human rights as well as lobby duty bearers to take action by protecting them from physical attacks.
They were equipped with human rights advocacy strategies such as research and analysis, networking and co-ordination, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation and problem identification. The WHRDs made resolutions and appreciated the strategies stating that they will guide them in their human rights work as they continue to raise their voices against violations in the region of Karamoja.
The WHRDS also raised concerns and requested to be trained in issues of security, given more information on protection, monitoring, reporting and evaluation. They further asked for self-care and collective healing spaces and more opportunities to have networking activities for them.
The WHRDNU took their concerns into account and is committed to providing them with support and spaces to enable them continue with their human rights work.
Caption: Brenda Kugonza E.D WHRDNU conducting her session during the training.
On the 19th of May 2021, 20 Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) from Karamoja region were trained in Human Rights Activism in Moroto district, Uganda. They were trained by UN Women together with OHCHR and Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda (WHRDNU) from 19th to 21st May.
It aimed at improving their skills of doing human rights work. The meeting was organized following concerns raised by WHRDs related to backlash from their communities, increased gender violence, police resistance and rampant name calling.
During the training, the Women defenders outlined key national protection institutions they can partner with in their defense of human rights. These included Uganda Human Rights Commission, Uganda Law Reform Commission, The Justice, Law and Order Sector. The Uganda Police Force and Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC). These institutions defend and advocate for human rights and human rights activists.
The WHRDs were also introduced to the national and International human rights protection mechanisms. For instance the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is an international human rights protection mechanism. The UNOHCR facilitator informed participants that Uganda was reviewed in UPR in October 2011 noting that the government received over 170 recommendations and accepted 129.
The Women defenders were encouraged to work amicably with duty bearers. For instance they can build a friendly working relationship with police officers in their areas. This would make it easy for them to report an attack or follow up on cases.
The training methodology encouraged participation by every member. For instance, the WHRDN-U staff, divided participants in to 3 groups. The group discussions enabled participants to discuss key questions namely:
- Identify the offline and online security threats, risks ad attacks that WHRDs face in Karamoja Regions.
- Suggest practical ways in which these off-line and on-line threats, risks and attacks can be addressed or prevented.
- In what ways can WHRDs in your region prevent or respond to attacks against them.
Responses to questions above.
The first group cited denial to speak in meetings/gatherings, arbitrary arrests, name calling, denial to access services, online bullying, hacking and revealing of private information to the public.
The second group suggested solutions such as avoiding joining multiple WhatsApp groups, desist from sharing hate speeches or personal information online/ offline. Having a 24/7 helpline like the one of WHRDNU at all times, use of different routes to avoid being followed unaware and referring cases to WHRDNU for support.
The third group gave insights on how women defenders can prevent or respond to attacks against them. These included but were not limited to reporting cases to authorities, burden sharing to overcome trauma, recording phone calls to do with threats, having good relationships with other WHRDs and joining professional organizations that can help.
At the end of the training, the WHRDs were appreciative of the new knowledge and skills they had acquired from the workshop.
Caption: WHRDNU staff (second left) poses for a photo with WHRDs in Mbale before heading to other districts.
There are many WHRDs in the districts of Kapchorwa, Kween and Mbale who are individual and organization affiliated Women Defenders. They defend Children’s Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Rights of women and girls, land rights of ethnic and indigenous people, rights of LBTG Women and fight against Widow Inheritance.
On 8th July 2020, the Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda (WHRDNU) represented by secretariat and the Head of Oil and Extracting rights working group woman defender conducted a solidarity visit to 18 WHRDs in the above mentioned districts to express solidarity, create awareness of WHRDNU, monitor their situation and encourage networking to foster solidarity among them.
The WHRDs voiced a series of challenges they were facing which included: being abhorred by barriers to access to justice, Phone call warnings, threats of being raped and beaten up, hostility from their community members and having nowhere to report such incidents. They recognized that the solidarity visits energize and encourage them. Members also received a helpline that would enable them reach WHRDNU.
We equipped them with tools and skills on how to identify the different forms of violations and how to report to WHRDNU for support in case of attacks. Contacts of service providers were shared through a list of referral services.
The WHRDs intimated that they would like to have more solidarity visits made to their areas to enhance and boost their confidence as they carry out their work and as a way of self-checking on their mental and psychological state.
Caption: Group photo of Women HRDs with Dr Linda Birungi.
The WHRDNU held a workshop for 14 WHRDs regional focal person representatives from different sub regions namely Acholi, Lango, Karamoja, Kigezi, Albertine, Rwenzori, Ankole, Busoga, Bagisu, Teso, Sebei, Bukedia, Budama, Bunyoro and rural Buganda under the theme “Promoting a culture of activism rooted in practices of self-care, mutual support and well-being” on 13th – 14th August 2020.
The workshop kicked off with the WHRDNU secretariat welcoming the participants and thanking them for attending the workshop. The objective was reiterated which was to provide a platform and process for WHRDs to deal with emotional and physical trauma and begin to prioritize their own well-being as a personal act. She further mentioned that the workshop is for them to reflect, relax, learn and enjoy. She invited them to feel free since this was a free space for all of them to network and commiserate with each other.
The WHRDs raised several challenges they faced repeatedly which include but are not limited to: Heavy workloads, stress and fatigue, family issues, financial instability, marital problems, personal frustrations and anxiety of what next in life. There was a counselor from Healing Talk Services who encouraged the WHRDs to seek out counseling services at least once a month and also engage in group counseling which reduces the stress of feeling lonely, overwhelmed and individually exposed.
Burden sharing was one of the activities that was done to help the WHRDs unpack the loaded up feelings of fatigue, bitterness and burn-outs that may affect their Human Rights work if not dealt with. A facilitator from Fitclique Africa helped address the several burdens that the WHRDs shared during the session by giving them tips on planning out an entire week and saving some funds to reduce on the stress of unpreparedness and distractions that come because of lack of proper planning.
Healing and care with medical and health practices was one of the sessions that shed light on reproductive health, health risks, and best health practices for WHRDs. Dr. Linda Birungi a gynecologist at Reproductive Health Uganda enlightened the WHRDs about their reproductive health, family planning and menstrual periods. She also advised the ladies to go for cervical cancer screening every after 3 years for those who don’t have HIV/AIDS and every year for those with it.
The self-care, well-being and collective healing workshop ended on a high note with the WHRDs appreciating the help and self-love practices they received and promised to incorporate them into their daily life. A new culture of activism that is rooted in practices of self-care and mutual support was also launched as a necessary condition of women’s movements in Uganda.
Caption: CEO WHRDNU Brenda Kugonza addressing WHRDs from the West Nile region.
On 22nd July 2020, the secretariat of WHRDNU together with the representative of sexual minorities’ woman defender conducted a Solidarity visit to West Nile. They held a meeting with 37 women human rights defenders from Arua, Koboko and Zombo districts. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce WHRDNU to them and build networks of solidarity from individuals and organizations to ensure their safety and active response to attacks with support from the Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda.
The women Human Rights defenders welcomed the presence of the WHRDNU by appreciating their work of supporting WHRDs as being unique, and equally acknowledged that they have always faced different forms of violations like physical assaults, threats on their lives and families, stigmatization and smear campaigns but had nowhere to report or get support and Protection.
A WHRD for Economic rights informed us of how she had been attacked by men in her community accusing her of being disrespectful, stubborn and misleading women to grab land from men. This was simply because she encouraged women to utilize land in their possession, get soft loans to invest and also save to become economically empowered and support their families.
Another WHRD submitted her grievance of being called “loud mouthed” and “nosy” just because she ensures good governance and Human rights while holding duty bearers accountable. Another woman defender recounted to us how she received threats from perpetrators promising to bring harm upon her family. She further faced confrontation from a district chairperson who went as far as talking to her husband about her work interfering in matters that are not of her concern.
A number of female journalists and many more WHRDs interfaced with a series of threats from phone calls warning them to back off, threats of being beaten and being called uncouth names publicly hence making the people in their community shun them and their work.
At the end of this meeting, key milestones were achieved such as the visibility of the WHRDNU, its work of providing protection and ensuring a safe working environment for WHRDs. WHRDNU also shared the list of referral services which the WHRDs can use in case of attacks and need support. The WHRDs were glad to have a hand that supports them after having shared their lived experiences of violations.
The Women Human Rights Defenders Network continues to conduct solidarity visits coupled with capacity building trainings to equip our WHRDs with tools to protect themselves from attacks but also report them when they happen and need support.
On 17th February 2021, WHRDNU learnt of the physical abuse that Irene Abalo of Daily Monitor and Josephine Namakumbi of NBS TV both journalists faced in the line of duty. They were capturing former Presidential Candidate Robert Kyagulanyi’s walk to deliver his petition on Human Rights Violations committed by the government to the offices of United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Kololo.
They were blocked and chased away by Military Police officials who also beat them until they could not walk or run. Irene Abalo was pulled by a police officer and one of her ankles hit three times causing it to swell. Whereas Josephine Namakumbi received heavy beatings of a baton on her back until she was forced to kneel down on the ground.
One of the police officers who assaulted them was quoted saying, “Stand up and run, we shall finish all of you.” It was hard for them to have been denied access to the premises of the UNHRC Offices but to also assault them physically was beyond the line.
The WHRDNU paid a solidarity visit to both of them in their homes to make sure that they were receiving medical attention and that they feel and remain encouraged fighting for the right to justice and information. They however expressed fear for their lives and loss of their jobs if they tried to report their cases to Police since it is the same police that was the perpetrator. Lists of referral services were given to them to help them get justice.
The WHRDNU is committed to Supporting accessing to support and emergency services for women defenders at risk for healing and self-care including accompaniments such as legal, medical, psycho- social support and temporary relocation services.
COVID-19 has presented a global challenge to all sectors of life. This has also affected the work of Women human rights defenders around the world and presented challenges that were unprecedented to them. The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner published a booklet detailing the Defending of Human Rights in the time of COVID-19. We are privileged to have our Executive Director, Brenda Kugonza featured in this publication.