Covid-19 in the eyes of women human rights defenders

Womecxcn leaders frotary Association at Parliaxcxcxccment on July 6, 2015 PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Human rights defenders were not listed among essential workers when the lockdown was announced on March 18.
  • Women human rights defenders share experiences of defending the rights of people during the lockdown.

Ritah Aciro Lacor, Executive Director Uganda Women’s Network
Covid-19 caught everybody unaware. It also exposed the country in terms of preparedness for disasters and pandemics. Covid-19 saw families and communities locked up, which became more challenging because majority of people live from hand to mouth.
Although our response efforts were curtailed by lockdown, specifically lack of transport and emergency rapid response, we managed to save women and girls who were confined with perpetrators of abuse.
As a result, many human rights violation cases such as gender based violence, food insecurity, lack of access to family planning services have been reported by the communities and human rights defenders.
In response to community needs, organisations started using online means to provide services such as counselling, shelter, mobilising resources and engaged government institutions to support families.

As a human rights defender, it was difficult to reach out to communities. Despite these challenges, there are a number of lessons I learnt. For instance, individuals, organisations and nations must prepare for disaster. There is need to lay out clear plans for disasters and strategies to support vulnerable communities, especially persons with disabilities, expectant mothers, the elderly among others. There is also need to sensitise people on the need to prioritise saving and store food for a rainy day. We need to create better communication services, create linkages between national and interdepartmental units to ensure that people are supported even during a crisis. In terms of human rights violations, perpetrators need to be brought to book by strengthening existing laws. The government needs to allocate more funds to overhaul public health services.

Jolly Mbambu, coordinator, Centre for Gender Equality, Kasese

Our operations in the western region were greatly affected by Covid-19. We had cases to follow up but we could not access the communities. We relied on people in these areas to give us information.
Communication was one of the major hindrances considering that people could not afford airtime and data as most of them were not earning.
Some women human rights defenders were not granted permission to move. As a human rights defender in Kasese, I needed to reach out to people in the community who were affected by the floods, but it was not possible. At some point, the Center for Gender Equality, a women’s’ organisation in Kasese District was intercepted by the police while delivering relief items to the affected people Kitolu Sub county and up to now, there is no trace of the relief items.

The lockdown has increased cases of child marriages, defilement and other sexual offenses. For efficient communication, all the women human rights defenders will be trained on digital security because the nature of our work is quite sensitive and our gadgets need to be protected from any kind of crime.

Brenda Kugonza, Executive Director, Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda
The Covid-19 health crisis has had serious impact on our lives and strategies as women human rights in Uganda. The majority of women human rights organisation or community organisations have had to limit, restrict and suspend their planned activities such as provision of education for the children, support political activities, provide income generating activities for the women have all put to hold.

Women human rights defenders say their operations were curtailed during the lockdown. PHOTO/FILE

The restrictions put in place have precipitated poverty which has increased burden of care on households. Women Human Rights Defenders Network Uganda (WHRDN-U) have attempted to support the victims of human rights violations. We have so far registered 13 cases of women human rights defenders who have reported violations against them, some of them have been arrested for supporting the victims, accused for spreading the virus because they are reaching out to support survivors of domestic violence. We are now finding ways of working online using the virtual, zoom, skype meetings and social media. Women human rights defenders were also excluded from processes to create and implement responses to the pandemic.

Macklyn Kyomya, Executive director, Alliance of Women Advocating for Change (AWAC)

I advocate for the rights of sex workers and adolescent girls engaging in sex work in rural, urban areas as well as slums.
The group I do advocacy for rarely has savings to sustain themselves and their survival depends on other people. As an organisation, we had to step in to ensure that they got their basic needs.
The disease came in with stringent directives which completely did not favour the sex workers and even when the food was being distributed, they were not counted as the maginalised community because their work is criminalised.
Personally, I had to close office and all the projects that we had to implement had to come to a standstill.
We are trying to adapt to a world with Covid-19 and we are embracing new ways working online. We have also reduced the number of people we have in meetings because we need to protect them from the virus. We have resorted to going to the field to meet the people whose human rights have been violated

Sarah Kisolo, Executive director, Rural Development Media Communication

There is a lot of abuse going on towards women and those who try to raise their concerns at community levels are equally restrained. In light of such developments, we are monitoring the impact. We have implemented measures to follow up on issues regarding the protection of women human rights defenders.
Field assessment surveys in the districts of Mubende, Mityana, Greater Kiboga, Mt. Elgon region, Tororo, Butaleja and Bugiri indicate that women in most cases have access to land, to do farming to feed the households but they do not have control over it. Even their own produce from the farms, does not belong to them. Let alone the natural resources only controlled by land owners who are usually men and government. The women who try to raise voices on behalf of the others, against this, are shut down by churches leaders, local councils, and opinion leaders.

In Sironko district, one of the ladies (Rodah Nassigye) who was working so hard to defend other women on the ground during this first season of planting was decampaigned, mobilized the money lenders and planned to grab her piece of land to humiliate her. I had to find six million shillings in the shortest time to rescue her situation so that she pays back to the money lenders. Even her restaurant was destroyed/ robbed, she called me at the beginning of this month to share her ordeal to seek for help.
As mentioned above, our access to various problematic places has been difficult but we are hoping that when the situation normalizes, we shall respond to women environmental concerns and issues regarding land tenure.

Mariam Mwiza, Executive director, Overseas Workers Voice

The work I do involves advocating for the rights of workers oversees and the rights of the girls that are trafficked in different countries.
During this time, many women working overseas have reported cases of human rights violations but because most of the countries were locked down, there was no way I could support them.

The lockdown limited my movement and many of the calls I made were often ignored. Even embassies responsible for the approval of the travel the victims were closed.
Until today, some Ugandans are still stranded abroad. More than 50 per cent of the people I have manage to contact lost their jobs months ago and surviving in a foreign country without a job is difficult. Others are working under poor conditions that even when they fall sick, they are given access to medication yet that is their right. Others have reported being tortured at their places of work.