Marginalised Human Rights Defenders in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania


The East and Horn of Africa sub-region is sometimes the scene of startling contradictions. Bloody land
conflicts are often set in areas of stunning natural beauty. Pervasive patriarchy thrives in societies built
on the labour of strong women. Rich traditions and power structures are often eclipsed by colonial-era
legislation or policies meant to subjugate rather than empower. Amid these juxtapositions are human
rights defenders (HRDs) who strive to promote and protect human rights in a shrinking civic space. While
fighting for their economic, social, political, and cultural rights, HRDs face opposition from a range of
actors who disregard the rights of the people.

Over the last 13 years, DefendDefenders has supported countless HRDs working in all walks of life, from
environmentalists to those struggling for the rights of people with disabilities. While the efforts of all HRDs
are important and deserving of protection, some groups of HRDs are further marginalised and vulnerable
to threats, harassment, and social exclusion, simply because of who they are. This is especially the case for
those working with indigenous minorities, women’s rights, and the rights of sexual minorities. In addition
to the everyday struggles of being HRDs, these defenders show courage while being systematically pushed
to the margins of public discourse and protection mechanisms.

We, at DefendDefenders, are also guilty of this oversight, but it is our intention that this report highlights
the struggles of these marginalised HRDs, identify existing human rights and protection gaps, and make
recommendations to address them. This report will also serve as a means to identify best practices
in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, and contrast the effectiveness of HRD strategies to mainstream
marginalised issues. Through these methods, it should become clear that despite the challenges facing
marginalised HRDs, even small measures can significantly reduce their vulnerability and help create an
environment where they can work without fear of persecution.

Grassroots activists are the backbone of establishing sustainable human rights systems in Uganda,
Kenya, and Tanzania. This is evermore important as 2018 marks the 70 year anniversary of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, and the 20 year anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights
Defenders. Only by examining the challenges of the most marginalised HRDs can we begin to create a
unified human rights movement that sees all issues as equally deserving of a seat at the table.
We would like to express our thanks to every respondent that took time to share their experiences with us,
and reiterate our solidarity in their daily struggle for justice and equality. No matter how lonely the road
may seem at times, know that you are never forgotten and never alone.

Hassan Shire
Executive Director of DefendDefenders
Chairperson of the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network

About DefendDefenders

Established in 2005, DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders
Project) seeks to strengthen the work of human rights defenders (HRDs) throughout the sub-region
by reducing their vulnerability to the risk of persecution by enhancing their capacity to effectively
defend human rights. DefendDefenders focuses its work on Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia,
Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia (with Somaliland), South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.

DefendDefenders serves as the secretariat of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders
Network, which represents hundreds of members consisting of individual HRDs, human rights
organisations, and national coalitions that envision a sub-region in which the human rights of every
citizen as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are respected and upheld.

DefendDefenders also serves as the secretariat of the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network
(PAHRDN). The network was formed as a result of deliberations at the All African Human Rights
Defenders Conference (Johannesburg +10) hosted in April 2009 in Kampala, Uganda. The five subregional networks forming the PAHRDN are: the North Africa Human Rights Defenders Network
(hosted by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies in Tunis), the West African Human Rights
Defenders Network (Lomé, Togo), the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (hosted by
the International Commission of Jurists in Johannesburg, South Africa), the Central Africa Human
Rights Defenders Network (Douala, Cameroon), and the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights
Defenders Network (hosted by DefendDefenders in Kampala, Uganda). PAHRDN aims to coordinate
activities in the areas of protection, capacity building, and advocacy across the African continent.

Executive Summary

While all HRDs in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region face significant challenges in their work, some
are marginalised due to their geographical location, cultural identify, gender, or sexual orientation, in
addition to their work. In order to better understand and address this marginalisation, this report focuses on
indigenous minorities, women human rights defenders (WHRDs), and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,
and other sexual minority (LGBT+) HRDs. While challenges related to these groups are ubiquitous across
the sub-region, this report will focus entirely on Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, specifically as the three
countries share considerable historical, social, and legal similarities. The historical background, relevant
legal and policy framework, challenges, and needs of these HRDs are examined in order to highlight
their vulnerability, while also presenting recommendations to help mitigate and address these issues.

Despite commitments at the international level, the three governments have disregarded their obligations
or employed misleading definitions of the already problematic “indigenous” label in national legislation to
dispossess peoples of their customary right to land that is integral to their cultural and spiritual heritage.
This has created significant legal gaps and a lack of access to effective remedies for HRDs working
with these communities, often in geographically isolated and economically disenfranchised regions. In
Western Uganda, several indigenous pastoralist and hunter-gatherer groups, notably the Batwa, have
been forcibly evicted from their traditional homes due to the gazetting of national parks, leading to
perpetual landlessness, lack of political representation, and reduced access to human rights mechanisms.
Indigenous peoples in Kenya’s isolated Turkana region have similarly been denied compensation for their
eviction from customary land after the discovery of fossil fuel deposits – their attempts at redress have
been stifled by both state and private sector actors. Conversely, in the face of inadequate legislation
and policies governing indigenous issues, the Maasai of Northern Tanzania have turned to supranational
courts for justice after several communities were violently evicted from their homes to facilitate tourism.
WHRDs face specific vulnerabilities linked to pervasive patriarchal norms and traditional gender roles
ingrained into their respective societies, which present women as subservient to men and unfit for nondomestic labour. In addition to challenges experienced by most civil society actors, WHRDs face unique
obstacles due to the sensitivity of their work, as well as unique risks such as gender-based violence and
misinformation campaigns regarding their personal lives. In Uganda, WHRDs face an increasingly hostile
legal environment with the adoption of several laws that have constrained their ability to work in a safe
and enabling environment. In Kenya, WHRDs peacefully demonstrating for women’s rights or access
to justice are increasingly at risk of attacks, while gaps within the women’s movement itself obstruct
greater cooperation. In Tanzania, WHRDs work in the context of a rapidly shrinking civic space, with the
government openly advocating for repressive traditional gender roles, which has raised concerns over
funding and effectiveness. Some respondents for this portion of the research reported being marginalised
within the human rights movement itself, as WHRDs are discouraged from leadership positions or
relegated to focusing only on women’s issues. Virtually every respondent cited a pressing and urgent need
for increased WHRD networking across the region to share best practices and establish joint advocacy
strategies in the face of shared challenges, perhaps culminating in a multinational WHRD coalition.

LGBT+ HRDs face deep-rooted challenges related to harmful narratives against their work perpetuated by
a range of actors, forcing them to balance increased visibility with justice systems that harshly penalise
consensual same-sex relations or those believed to be promoting them. As a result, they are sometimes
forced to conduct their work clandestinely, seriously limiting advocacy efforts or running the risk of having their events raided or shut down by the government. In Uganda, discourse surrounding draconian
legislation led to the organisation of an LGBT+ rights movement, while also attracting consistent backlash
from the government and other segments of society. Kenyan LGBT+ HRDs have made significant gains
for their rights through organised strategic litigation and a strong push for decriminalisation, yet many
still struggle with unconstrained freedom of expression and association. Conversely, Tanzania’s shrinking
civic space has seen the LGBT+ community increasingly targeted in national discourse, leading to
increased attacks and arrests of HRDs. In all three countries, LGBT+ HRDs face negative stereotypes,
hateful rhetoric from media and government officials, and threats to their personal safety, all of which
culminate in unstable working environments and unaddressed needs related to psychosocial support.
While all these marginalised groups face unique challenges, several trends became apparent through
the course of this research, chief among them that marginalised HRDs face additional obstacles to
enjoying freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.
Nearly all marginalised HRDs from the three thematic groups listed social isolation and a lack of access
to mental health support services as major impediments to their personal well being, which has direct
effects on their ability to conduct their human rights work effectively. Furthermore, nearly all groups
lacked significant political representation at the local and national level, further obfuscating their activities
and leaving them vulnerable to misinformation campaigns aimed at silencing their activism. Threats,
physical attacks, and arbitrary arrests were common with all three groups, with respondents noting that a
perceived lack of will on the part of authorities to properly address these injustices led them to self-censor.

Many HRDs interviewed for this report noted that their marginalisation occurred not only within
their families and communities, but sometimes also from broader civil society, creating harmful
competition over funding and perpetuating a cycle of isolation and a lack of capacity. The human
rights movement in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region cannot progress without acknowledging
and addressing the needs of its most vulnerable defenders, and only by deconstructing internal
divisions can civil society present an effective and unified front to combat human rights violations.

The report is organised thematically, and contains individual country case studies along with thematic
recommendations to governments and stakeholders. These findings are the result of interviews with 161
HRDs in 11 cities, making every effort to verify information with multiple sources to ensure accuracy.


This report is a combination of desk research and interviews with 161 HRDs, including lawyers, grassroots
activists, and journalists. All interviews were conducted between February and October 2018 in Uganda
(Kampala, Mbarara, Kabale, Fort Portal, Gulu), Kenya (Nairobi, Lodwar, Lokichar), and Tanzania (Dar es
Salaam, Zanzibar City, Arusha). Claims not otherwise sourced are credited to the interviews conducted by
DefendDefenders, making every effort to confirm this information with multiple independent sources.

The names and identifying markers of all sources have been deliberately omitted in order to ensure their
safety, independence, and protection from reprisals in the form of legal and extra-legal harassment, or
acts of intimidation, threats, or attacks. We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all the individuals
who contributed their testimonies, insights, and analyses for this report.

We would also like to extend our thanks to the enormous contributions of the National Coalition of
Human Rights Defenders Uganda, the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya, and the
Tanzanian Human Rights Defenders Coalition. This research would have been impossible without your
diligent support, facilitation, and patience.

Part 1 – Indigenous Minority Human Rights Defenders

Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania are home to hundreds of indigenous ethnic groups with unique cultures, languages, and social structures that often differ considerably from the dominant society. While all three countries have signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,1 issues over ethnic marginalisation, land grabbing, forced evictions, and extra-judicial harassment from both states and businesses remain pervasive. These human rights violations and abuses often go unreported, unredressed, and sometimes fall between the cracks of human rights protection mechanisms.
With few exceptions, indigenous minority groups within the three countries are economically disenfranchised, linguistically and geographically isolated, and lack access to education, avenues for visibility such as the media, and larger justice systems to expose and address the human rights violations they experience. The work of HRDs is therefore paramount in ensuring the full enjoyment of human rights for marginalised indigenous groups, especially in light of their often isolated nature.
Their vulnerability is often increased by unpredictable weather patterns, semi-arid landscapes, and the relative proximity of agrarian and nomadic communities, which often lead to pervasive conflicts over land throughout East Africa. These factors are compounded by climate change, which renders previously affable grazing or farmland increasingly scarce and can affect the migratory patterns of wild animals, leading to competition between rural communities who may have previously lived in harmony. These factors have been particularly pronounced for already marginalised indigenous groups, who are often further disenfranchised by the large-scale exploitation of natural resources on

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