Celebrating 15 years in West Africa: A Q&A with John Kabia
John Kabia is the Fund for Global Human Rights’ Program Officer for Thematic Initiatives. With over six years of experience managing Fund programs in West Africa, John has seen the region and the Fund’s work greatly evolve. We sat down with him to learn about the human rights challenges currently facing West Africa, and how the program has changed since the Fund started working.
Q: How did the Fund’s West Africa program begin? Why work there?
John Kabia (JK): We started working in West Africa in 2003 and have been investing in and connecting frontline activists across Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia ever since. When the Fund started work in these countries, the region was emerging from violent conflict and brutal dictatorship.
In Liberia, there was heavy fighting for control of the capital, Monrovia, and then-President Charles Taylor had recently been indicted by a war crimes tribunal. In Sierra Leone, a large UN peacekeeping force was assisting the government to extend its authority beyond the capital, Freetown, following a civil war that was notoriously brutal. And in Guinea, decades of authoritarian rule and human rights abuses had left the population fearful.
We knew we had to respond to these challenges, so the Fund’s initial grants in West Africa supported organizations working on the reintegration of child soldiers, protection of the rights of refugees and displaced persons, reform of judicial systems, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and environmental justice.
Q: How has the program changed since it launched?
JK: Starting out, we largely worked with human’s rights groups based in capital cities. However, it quickly became clear that while capital-based groups played a critical role in pressing for legislative changes, they often failed to undertake the outreach needed to ensure their hard-won legal victories were being implemented in other parts of the country. To change this, we began building a more diverse portfolio of grantees—deliberately seeking out and supporting emerging organizations in areas that many donors had overlooked.
To gain access to the more remote corners of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, we worked with local advisors and organizations that had strong contacts among community-based groups. In Sierra Leone, we began working with the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (CDHR), who were providing training and mentorship to local women’s rights organizations in northern Sierra Leone. In Liberia, the Fund’s support to Green Advocates helped the organization build a nationwide network of grassroots organizations promoting the land and resource rights of local communities.
The Fund also encouraged capital-based organizations to expand their presence to rural districts, such as in Guinea, where support to the Association pour la Défense des Droits des Enfants et des Femmes en Guinée (ADDEF) allowed the organization to expand its presence into Guinee Forestiere, an isolated region of the country.
Q: Have we seen any progress since 2003?
JK: We absolutely have. Fund grantees throughout West Africa have scored major legislative and policy victories, won landmark legal cases against powerful opponents, and have challenged traditional practices that were abusive to vulnerable people and communities.
For example, in Liberia, Fund grantee the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL) was instrumental in drafting and passing a 2004 law that provides equal protection and rights to women in marriage, criminalizes forced and early marriage, and grants women the right to inherit property. Beyond this, in 2005, AFELL pushed for the passage of an anti-rape law, which increases penalties for perpetrators, raises the age of consent to 18, and corrects language in older legislation that made it difficult to prosecute sexual assault cases. The passage of these laws were monumental steps forward for women across Liberia.
In Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SiLNoRF) mobilized a movement that successfully campaigned for changes to the country’s land laws–a win that allowed women to own land for the first time in some parts of the country. In Liberia, Green Advocates in 2009 successfully led efforts to demand the passage of the Community Rights Law which ensures that resource extraction activities better benefit the local communities they’re based in. That same year, they spearheaded efforts to make Liberia the first African country to become compliant under the rules of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative—a coalition that promotes the verification and full publication of company payments and government revenues from oil, gas, and mining.
In Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, Fund grantees led local efforts to draft and advocate for the passing of children’s rights legislation to ensure the domestic application of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Fund support has also enabled grantees to establish and support community child protection structures to allow local ownership and participation in the promotion of children’s rights.
Q: Harmful cultural norms can take a while to change. What work have grantees done on this in the last 15 years?
JK: I think that Fund grantees have made great strides in transforming traditional practices that condoned discrimination and violence against women. For example, Fund grantee Zorzor District Women Care (ZODWOCA) successfully engaged traditional leaders in Zorzor, Lofa County, Liberia, transforming them from opponents into strong advocates for women’s rights. In the absence of the police, local chiefs in Zorzor now make arrests in cases of sexual violence and facilitate the transfer of suspects to the courts. Before the work of these frontline groups, chiefs would often compromise sexual violence cases and force the survivor to accept an out-of-court settlement.
Q: How has the Fund helped West African grassroots groups grow and be sustainable?
JK: We have heavily prioritized building the capacity of our grantees in West Africa. Thanks to this kind of technical assistance, groups like Consortium des Jeunes pour la Défense des Droits des Victimes de Violences en Guinée (Youth Coalition for the Defense of the Rights of Victims of Violence in Guinea, or COJEDEV) have grown from an informal and loose coalition of young people affected by political violence in Guinea, to one of the leading human rights organizations fighting impunity in the country.
Additionally, the Fund’s capacity-building support has enabled organizations to strengthen their financial management, strategic planning, fundraising, and communications work–making them stronger and more sustainable. In 2003 the Fund was the first organization to provide a grant to Green Advocates in Liberia; following long-term support coupled with strategic capacity building work over the past 15 years, Green Advocates has flourished into one of West Africa’s leading environmental justice organizations.
Q: Part of the Fund’s strategy in West Africa is connecting activists across borders. How does that work?
JK: It’s all about helping activists learn and collaborate with one another. The Fund has played a significant role in bringing together frontline activists by coordinating convenings that connect local leaders to share knowledge and develop collective responses to common problems. For example, in 2017 the Fund coordinated a convening in Liberia that focused on preventing violence against women and girls, bringing together women’s rights groups from East and West Africa. This meeting of activists truly challenged participants to reflect on their current strategies and approaches to preventing violence against women and girls and learn new ways of working from each other.
Q: What’s next for the program?
JK: The Fund’s grantees in West Africa have scored incredible victories over the past decade and a half. Of course, challenges remain. The region continues to grapple with widespread human rights and environmental abuses linked to land and resource extraction. Laws and policies passed to protect women and children are not fully enforced, creating a disconnect between what is on paper and the reality on the ground. In addition, governments in the region are increasing crackdowns on local activists and organizations who dare to speak out against human rights abuses and hold authorities to account.
Moving forward in West Africa, we will begin to provide more targeted support to activists working on three priority issues: corporate accountability, children’s rights, and creating an enabling environment for human rights defenders. On corporate accountability, the Fund will be supporting grassroots groups to better collaborate and challenge exploitative interests and corporate extractive projects threatening their communities’ land and natural resources. In the area of children’s rights, the Fund will be supporting organizations working with local communities to prevent violence against children and promote access to social services, while helping the grantees scale up and strengthen their work. And finally, to ensure human rights defenders and local leaders have an enabling environment to carry out their work, the Fund will also be supporting activists pushing back on increasingly restrictive measures impeding their efforts, so that they can reclaim civic space.