Women Human Rights Defenders in Busoga: Courageously Championing Change in difficult working conditions
In July 2023, the Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda embarked on a fact-finding mission and solidarity visits to grassroots women human rights defenders in the Busoga region. The mission aimed to identify challenges faced by WHRDs, verify allegations of attacks, and recommend measures to create a safer working environment. During this remarkable journey, the defenders demonstrated their unwavering commitment to various human rights causes, including environmental rights, gender-based violence, child labor, land rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and sex workers’ rights.
Empowering Voices on NBS Radio
The WHRDs from the Busoga region seized the opportunity to broadcast their message on NBS Radio in Jinja. They eloquently spoke about their essential roles in protecting and empowering the community. From supporting victims of domestic violence and fighting against early marriages to defending the environment and advocating for children’s rights in rice and sugarcane plantations, their dedication to making a positive impact was evident.
Women Human Rights Defenders from Busoga region during the radio talk show
Supporting Persons with Albinism:
One of the heartening encounters was with Fazirah Kawoma, Head of Programs at the Source of Nile Union of Persons with Albinism (SNUPA). Fazirah shed light on the discrimination faced by people with albinism, emphasizing the importance of promoting healthcare and education. SNUPA’s efforts in supporting cancer prevention through surgeries and educational opportunities were laudable, proving that solidarity can be a powerful tool against discrimination.
Engaging with Local Organizations
The fact-finding mission included interactions with local organizations and strengthening networks and resources. At the First African Bicycle Information Organization (FABIO), the WHRDNU team appointed Rita Nakalema as their focal person, ensuring a seamless support flow to defenders in need. Brenda Kugonza encouraged the referral of attacked WHRDs, exemplifying the spirit of collective empowerment.
Addressing Gender-Based Violence at Rape Hurts Foundation
The team visited the Rape Hurts Foundation, a pivotal organization supporting women and children in the Busoga region. The foundation’s efforts in providing emergency support for victims of violence and raising awareness about GBV, trafficking, and the rights of survivors were commendable. However, they also highlighted the challenges they face when handling GBV cases, with some police stations demanding bribes before taking action. Such obstacles underline the need for continued advocacy and reform.
Concern for Children and Women Empowerment (COFCAWE)
Namugolo Sarah, a WHRD from COFCAWE, showcased the organization’s dedication to empowering young children and teenage mothers through skill training and start-up kits. However, the prevalence of child abuse and defilement in the villages remains a pressing issue. WHRDs like Sarah face challenges in following up on cases due to reluctance from community leaders and parents to disclose criminals. Such hurdles call for collaborative efforts to strengthen legal mechanisms and support systems.
The Invaluable Efforts of Integrated Disabled Women Activists (IDWA)
The team’s interaction with Elizabeth Kayanga, Executive Director of IDWA, revealed the organization’s commendable endeavors in promoting gender equality and advocating for the rights of women and girls living with disabilities. Their achievements, such as providing adjustable labor beds and wheelchairs in hospitals, demonstrated the transformative power of grassroots activism. However, they also highlighted harassment and body shaming faced by paralegals with disabilities during their community outreach.
Empowering Female Sex Workers
The courageous female sex workers who are also human rights defenders shared the critical work they do in advocating for their rights and ensuring their safety in the face of insecurity. They recounted recent incidents of arrests and false accusations, which they tenaciously resolved through advocacy and intervention. Their resilience exemplifies the importance of ensuring human rights for all, regardless of their profession.
WHRDs build working relationships with police officers in the community for their protection.
The fact-finding mission and solidarity visits to the Busoga region showcased the immense contributions of women human rights defenders in championing change and safeguarding the rights of marginalized communities. Despite facing physical insecurity and numerous challenges, these defenders inspire hope and progress. By amplifying their voices, strengthening networks, and addressing systemic barriers, we can create a safer and more inclusive environment for these valiant defenders to continue their invaluable human rights work.
Empowering Voices: Report on a fact-finding mission in Bukedi
The Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda(WHRDN-U), conducted a fact-finding mission and solidarity visits to grassroots women human rights defenders from the Busoga subregion on the 24th, 25th, to 26th of July 2023 in Mbale, Kween, Tororo/Malaba, and Katakwi districts working on different kinds of human rights work in their communities like environmental rights, Gender-Based Violence, child labor rice plantations, land rights, LGBQ and sex workers rights.
Objectives of the visit were to;
1) To identify facts on contributions of WHRDs and verify allegations of attacks
2) To Identify the challenges faced WHRDs during their human rights work and express solidarity
3) To Identify WHRDs at risk who could have been attacked or threatened because of their human rights work.
4) To Identify possible recommendations that could create a safer working environment for WHRDs to continue doing human rights work in the region.
The methodology of the Finding mission was carried out through a combination of interviews. The team also visited offices and the areas where women human rights defenders conduct their activities to witness first-hand the challenges they face in their struggle for human rights.
Voices of WHRD from Mbale
On 24th July 2023, the WHRDN-UGANDA team visited Mungoma Priscilla, a WHRD promoting the rights of the girl child and transpersons, health rights in her organization, Friends of the Marginalized in Mbale district.
Priscila shared her experience of attacks and threats she is facing. She narrated that due to the passing of the anti-homosexuality act, she has been facing criticism, intimidation, and threats of killing her from the community and was arrested by a police officer that said, ‘’This is the girl that works with them’’ because she was working with her partner who belonged to the gay community in the organization.
Priscilla emphasized that she promotes the healthy rights for women and girls by sensitizing them about the benefits of using birth control methods; because of her work, she was attacked by the community, who accused her that ‘’ She is refusing our girls and wives from giving birth.’’
Mungoma Priscila a WHRD from Mbale and team from WHRDN-U
Voices of Bennet WHRDs
On the 24th of July 2023, the team from the women human rights defender network Uganda met Sange Jackline and Kusoru Viola WHRDs from the Kween district, and they shared the threats, attacks, and challenges they are facing as WHRDs for the Bukedi sub-region; Currently, some Benet indigenous peoples are living in the temporary settlement that the government gave them after evictions from Mount Elgon natural pack in 2008. Some Benet people and some temporary settlements were granted permanent residential settlements through the Uganda Wild Life Authority. With no clear boundaries for the temporary residential settlements. This is causing problems for the Bennet people living in the temporary settlements, as they are being abused for encroaching on the gazetted land. For instance, the Bennet are arrested, their family are victims of gunshots, and some families have lost them.
We, the Bennet indigenous groups, believe that Mount Elgon National pack is our ancestral pack and have the right to access the Elgon Forest land to get firewood medicinal herbs and graze our animals.As WHRDs from our organization, called the Bennet Lobby, we continue to advocate for our rights through dialogues between us, the Bennet natives, and the Resident District Commissioner (RDCs), UWA – so that government elevates the status of temporary residential settlements to permanent residential settlement for some of the Bennet people.
They are tortured, raped, sexually harassed, beaten, and the Uganda World Life Authority destroys their animals and crops.
As WHRDs, we are seen as inciting violence in the community, our work is criminalized, and we are surveilled by unknown people who attend our community sensitization meetings.
On 1st May 2023 in Kwopi sub-county, the UWA officials arrested my neighbors, and their animals (cows, goats, and sheep) were taken. These Victims of this incident called me, Jackie Sange (as their defender), to conduct a mediation meeting between UWA and the victims; the UWA staff said they do not want me in the discussion, saying I was the problem. On 3rd/May/2023. When the UWA was carrying out an exercise for evacuating the Bennet people from the gazetted land, they destroyed houses, took away our animals, and threatened me, Jackie, and other defenders that ‘’if anyone tampers with the evacuation exercise, they would be arrested’.
Sange Jackline and Kusuru Viola WHRDs from Kween district and the team from WHRDN-U.
Stories of WHRDs from Tororo
On 25th July 2023, the WHRDNU team also visited three words from Tororo district on the Ayoo Juliet, and Amongin Juliet from Milikiti sub-county,
Juliet Ayoo, a Woman HRD promoting land rights, introduced Women HRDS Athieno Annet, Aiweny Mary, Topista Anyako, Apadet Sylvia, and Lear Atiyar prompting environment rights from Osukuru United Women Network to the district environment officer in Tororo district to share the challenges they find while promoting and sensitizing to the community about the importance of planting trees and the dangers of cutting trees to burn charcoal and also to seek support whenever they attacked. The words shared that they are always in mind when they come out to stop people from cutting trees by saying that ‘’ we cannot stop cutting trees because this where we survive by cutting trees and burning charcoal. ’The environmental officer encouraged words to continue to protect and sensitize their communities about planting more trees to conserve the environment and pledged to support them by giving them more seedlings to plant in August 2023.
Tororo Women Environmental Defenders
Tororo Women Environmental Defenders in advocacy meeting with the environment and natural resource department at the district headquarters in Tororo district.
Voices of WHRDs Fighting Child Labour in Tororo
The WHRDN- visited WHRD defending human rights for young children from child labour in rice plantations in Milikiti sub county Tororo district Amongin Juliet. She stated that while planting rice and harvesting rice, instead of taking the children to school, the parents take the children in the rice field to plant, and they also use the children to scare away birds from eating the rice during harvest. So, when she involves the Local Council (LC) and parents of the children to convince them to take their children back to school, they say to her,‘’ These are our children and not yours.’’
Amongin furthermore stated that she gets insulted for advocating for the rights of young children, telling her that ‘’it is that one who is attached to human rights spoiling our children.’’Amongin stated that because of her human rights work, she is at risk, and when she visits some homes in her community moves with her bottle of water, and, she has been labeled and called names like ‘’Fire brigade.’’
Namaganda Lydia sex work Woman Human Rights Defender from Malaba promotes the health care rights for sex workers, and LBQ stated that due to the passing of an anti-homosexuality bill, it has been challenging for the LBQ community to access health care for fear of being arrested. Hence, she narrated that she has to travel at night, which is risky to provide health care services to the LBQ community.
Namaganda Lydia WHRD from Malaba in Tororo district
The fact-finding mission of the Bukedi sub-region was a successful activity because of the following;
1) The WHRDNU team identified WHRDs that were at risk because of the human rights work they do in their communities to receive support.
2) The words from Tororo district met with the district environment office. They shared the challenges they face when sensitizing the community about the dangers of cutting trees to burn charcoal, and they requested support in case they are attacked.
3) The environment officer at the district agreed to support and provide protection to the words promoting environment conservation in case they are attacked.
4) The environmental officer also promised to give the women human rights defenders more seedlings in August to plant more trees.
Caption: Ms. Sarah Kisoro thanking TotalEnergies for recognizing the contribution of WHRDs in advocating for resettlement packages for women in Albertine region.
Based on the principle of collective power is louder and networks can save lives, a key strategy of the WHRDN-U is the creation and support of regional (rural) women human rights defenders networks and coordination of joint actions. WHRDN-U supported regional networks in Albertine, Acholi, Rwenzori and West Nile regions as a joint platform for advocating and confronting violence etc. Below are key actions of WHRDs-Regional Networks.
KEY ACTIONS OF WHRDS- REGIONAL- NETWORKS
Women Human Rights Defenders from Albertine region have not abandoned their human rights work of engaging extractive Industries.
The Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda (WHRDN-U), has created the WHRD -Albertine- regional -network, that has helped WHRDs to take collective actions. For instance; On 23rd and 30th August 2021, the WHRD- Albertine – regional network in collaboration with 17 Women defenders from Kagadi, Masindi, Hoima, Bulisa, and Kiryadongo districts of Albertine Region, engaged with Total energies’ NGO desk at their offices in Bulisa district. In the meeting, Women Defenders highlighted their contributions in the Albertine region noting as women they have promoted peace and justice, economic and political rights, challenged discrimination and promoted equality for everyone.
The women defenders informed the team from Total that they also work to amplify the concerns of women and community members who have suffered land evictions due to oil extractions. In the meetings, discussions also focused on how women tend to be excluded from the economic benefits and negotiations about the fate of their territories.
Several actions were also proposed to strengthen working relationship between WHRDs and Total energies’ NGO desk. For instance, Total energies pledged to invite women defenders to participate in the periodic NGO meetings organized by them and to work with women defenders to ensure women of Albertine region continue to benefit from the land resettlement compensation packages.
WHRDN-U, continues to support women defenders that have decided to take action because of seeing the negative impact of extractive operations on women and people struggling for social, economic and environment justices in their communities.
2. Members of the Acholi -WHRD -Regional Network: Maintain relationships and disseminate information about their contributions in Acholi region
The Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda (WHRDN-U), continues, to support women defenders from Acholi region to acquire important experience on how to enhance the visibility of their contributions in region. On 26th August /2021, 19 women defenders from Kitgum, Gulu, Pader and Amuru districts of Acholi region, took a collective action when they held a radio talk show. The radio talk show at Might Fire FM in Kitgum district, enabled defenders to promote the human rights defense work they do in the region and their identities. The talk show was the first of its kind in the region where women defenders jointly came together to make their work visible. The talk show was an opportunity for women defenders to call upon different stakeholders to support their human rights.
For instance, while on radio, Ms.Anena Sandra from Gulu district stated “we call upon, cultural, religious and political leaders to support women defenders in Acholi region.”
Ms. Akot Lucy from Amuru district, while on radio mentioned “As women defenders, we have supported, women, children and even men whose rights have been violated, this has made our communities better.”
Ms.Ocuuee Susan , while on radio noted “ I have defended women and children who have faced cultural and domestic violence in my district.”
As a result of the talk show, the Manager of Might FM made commitments to collaborate with WHRDs in the region when he commented “We will give you free air time to come and discuss issues affecting women and increased teenage pregnancies in our region- please women defenders always share information with us for airing as news.”
The Acholi WHRDs play a crucial role in protecting and defending the rights of women and girls in their communities, especially in remote areas. The Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda will continue to strengthen the capacity of the Acholi- WHRD-Regional network to promote the recognition of the human rights work they do.
3. The Batwa women indigenous defenders, together with Rwenzori- WHRDs -Regional -Network have achieved greater recognition from the Uganda Wildlife Authority
The Batwa community of Bundibugyo district are some of the indigenous and yet minority group of people in Uganda whose rights to culture and source of livelihood (the forests) need to be protected from being extinct. Many of them continue to face violence and discrimination.
It is against the above background, that women defenders from rural areas across the Rwenzori region came together including; indigenous women, sex workers, community organizers, land rights defenders, defenders of the rights of people with disability, defenders working on GBV, and women defenders in the mining sector. All grouped together within the Rwenzori -regional -women human rights defenders’ network. They coordinated themselves to express solidarity with the Batwa indigenous women defenders of Bundibugyo. This was achieved on 30/August/2021, when they jointly held an advocacy meeting with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) at their offices in Bundibugyo district.
The 20 WHRDs including the Batwa defenders from Kasese, Katwe, Bundibugyo, Kabarole and Mubende districts of Rwenzori region, interacted with Mr. Balyasima Geoffrey the in-charge warden and Ms. Norah Bumbi the Community liaison officer of Semuliki national park in Bundibugyo district.
During the meeting between Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and WHRDs of the Rwenzori region, participants appreciated UWA for allowing the Batwa people to access firewood, to harvest fish from the ponds and streams and herbs in the forest. Participants also discussed how to foster collaboration with UWA to ensure Batwa people are protected from violence while accessing the Matongo/ Semiliki forest for food, herbs and visiting their ancestral burial sites.
The coordination of this joint action, enabled the Batwa women defenders to share collective testimonies about how they are prevented from accessing their ancestral land and the violence that they continue to face. Below are testimonies:
“We the Batwa, we are stopped from hunting bush meat from the forest-We are beaten when being chased out of the forest and some people use the guns to shoot us” said Ms. Edreda Dogolo, a mutwa woman defender.
“We continue to face violations and marginalization because we are Batwa indigenous peoples- COVID-19 is affecting us as indigenous peoples and we have no access to health, when we access our ancestral land to get medicine etc, we are accused of increasing conflict and encroachment over our indigenous land and ancestral ground.” Said Grace Mbhatina a mutwa woman defender
The UWA pledged to collaborate with the Batwa women and WHRDs to ensure that the Batwa community is protected from violence noting that the Community liaison officer of Semuliki national park will keep in touch with Batwa in order to address any emerging concern. “We appreciate the Batwa community and will continue to work with them to ensure they access the forest.” Said Mr. Balyasima Godfrey the in-charge warden Semuliki national park.
The Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda, will continue supporting processes of coordination for the Rwenzori Regional Network.
4. WHRDs of the West Nile Regional Network: express solidarity with women defending rights of sex workers.
The West Nile Regional Network of 20 women defenders from Zombo, Adjumani, Moyo, Koboko, and Nebbi took a collective joint action to support and demonstrate solidarity to women defending the rights of sex workers in Arua district.
The women defenders from the West Nile Regional Network are involved in defending various rights like land rights, civil rights, political rights, sexual and reproductive rights, rights of sex workers and fighting against GBV, widow inheritance, discrimination, and injustices in their communities.
On 2nd September 2021, the WHRDs interfaced with the women defending the rights of sex workers who raised concerns of stigmatization, discrimination and arbitrary arrests from duty bearers. During the meeting, the WHRDs appreciated and encouraged the women defending rights of sex workers to continue defending and promoting human rights.
The Arua women defending rights of sex workers, demonstrated their appreciation of the support from West Nile -WHRD-Regional- Network when they mentioned on the flip charts that:
“Sex workers defenders from today feel supported by the West Nile WHRDs Regional Network, thank you! Thank you!”
“Thank you! Appreciation to West Nile Human Rights Defenders Network for your solidarity protection to women defending the rights of sex workers in Arua district.”
WHRDNU continues to create platforms that enable women defenders to network and express solidarity to fellow women in different regions.