• Despite gathering restrictions, we are grateful for the opportunity to honour and recognise the crucial work human rights defenders do
• They have been at the frontline, protecting human rights and supporting their communities during the strenuous times brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
On November 27, the fifth edition of the Kenyan Human Rights Defenders Awards is being celebrated across the country.
Despite restrictions on the size of gatherings, we are grateful for the opportunity to honour and recognise the crucial work of human rights defenders. They are at the frontline, protecting human rights and supporting their communities during the strenuous times brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The year has been a challenging one for the world. Most countries have implemented wide-ranging measures to curb the spread of the virus. Social and economic inequalities affect the resilience of communities to face the shock that such a pandemic represents.
Therefore, the work of human rights defenders is particularly important this year – advocating the right to health services, demanding government agencies ensure open contracting and accounting for Covid-funds and fundamental human rights in enforcing restrictive measures.
The Human Rights Defenders Awards were initiated by the HRD Working Group in 2016. This group brings together Kenyan civil society and human rights defenders, including feminists and international partners. They have a shared purpose of promoting human rights and protecting and supporting those who defend human rights.
The project is a great example of global solidarity in protecting, upholding and defending human rights and social justice. It is co-chaired by the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders-Kenya and the Embassy of Norway.
The awards recognise human rights defenders in three major categories: Upcoming human rights defender, human rights defender of the year and the human rights defender lifetime award.
The honourees are selected by an independent judging panel chaired by Rachael Mwikali, co-founder and convener of the Coalition for Grassroots Human Rights Defenders Kenya.
The panel members are all Kenyans who have made distinct contributions to promoting and defending human rights: Jury assistant chairperson and programme coordinator at Hivos Foundation Andrew Maina, former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and director of Isiolo Gender Watch Grace Lolim.
Others are environmental human rights defender Njeri Kabeberi, Friends of Lake Turkana founder Ikal Ang’elei, cartoonist and Buni Media founder Godfrey Mwampembwa and Kamanda Mucheke from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
The aim of the awards is to honour and recognise Kenyan rights defenders from diverse backgrounds — from urban and rural areas, with different gender identities and of different ages. They include feminists and those championing an inclusive and comprehensive approach to the defence of human rights and social justice issues.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Constitution – one that contains progressive provisions. They aim to ensure the rights of the individual as well as gender equality and the participation of women, and indeed, all Kenyans, in decision-making processes.
Additionally, the year marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and security. This resolution made it clear that women’s involvement in peace and security issues is essential for peace to be sustainable.
The year is, therefore, the right moment to celebrate and appreciate why women's involvement is necessary at all levels of decision-making — in peace and security, human rights, development and in shaping our common future.
This year, we note an overall increase in the number of nominations of women human rights defenders. This is not surprising because we know that women human rights defenders are out there and doing incredible work, while they face unique challenges and barriers because of their gender.
That women are increasingly recognised in their communities is indeed something worth celebrating, even though we must continue to work together to ensure that the voices of women and girls are heard.
We must also ensure the pandemic will not represent a setback for the rights of women and girls. We must thus work together to combat discrimination and the pandemic represents an opportunity for us to make joint commitments to achieve this.
The efforts of these defenders to protect fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression are necessary, and their role in safeguarding civic space is not to be underestimated.
HRDs play an indispensable role in monitoring, documenting, and championing a society where every citizen is able to freely express their opinion both online and offline.
A free exchange of ideas provides solid ground for arriving at solutions that benefit and include the diverse needs of our society. We must continue to protect these rights together.
Today we are gathered in spirit celebrating the work of human rights defenders, honouring inspiring individuals and organisations who have made particular contributions in their communities.
We encourage you to watch the event on live stream, and to engage in the online conversation under the hashtag #HRDAwardsKE
Rachael Mwikali is the cofounder and convener of the Coalition for Grassroots Human Rights Defenders Kenya, while Elin Bergithe Rognlie is the Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya