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Meet the Nationwide Coalition Supporting Human Rights Defenders in Kenya

This article is part of a series featuring inspiring stories of local action #fromthefrontlines of COVID-19 in the Global South. For more, visit our COVID-19 page and follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Over the last six months, the Fund has highlighted how frontline activists across the globe have stepped up to protect their communities and safeguard fundamental freedoms during the historic coronavirus pandemic. But human rights defenders themselves continue to face targeted discrimination and wanton violence for their lifesaving work—and the pandemic has only accelerated the risks, from selective enforcement of lockdown laws to extreme measures that grant security forces extraordinary powers of persecution.

In addition to confronting rampant persecution, human rights defenders have also had to contend with the loss of livelihoods. Like others, activists’ work has been interrupted and constrained—or even entirely suspended—by measures including quarantines, social distancing, and lockdowns.

In response, the Defenders Coalition of Kenya—a national organization that champions the safety, security, and well-being of human rights defenders—has used financial assistance from the Fund to scale up its nationwide COVID-19 response work and offer ongoing support to Kenya’s human rights community, providing embattled activists with the materials necessary to help them meet their medical, humanitarian, and even economic needs.

One innovative way that Defenders Coalition is supporting economic livelihoods is by enabling activists to produce and sell soap—a hot commodity during a public health crisis. They’ve trained six networks of human rights defenders with the skills to make soap, and provided financial assistance to purchase the raw materials necessary. Activists have been able to use the soap themselves, offer it to their communities, and sell the rest to sustain their livelihoods.

Beyond relieving economic hardship, Defenders Coalition has also been a reliable source of assistance for human rights defenders suffering legal or social persecution.

Kenyan police have violently enforced curfews and other containment measures—between March 27 and June 30, security forces injured 32 people and killed 20. Others have faced extortion, arbitrary arrest, or quarantine on non-medical grounds. Constitutional guarantees, including the rights to privacy and to peaceably assemble, have been widely violated. Due to their sensitive work, human rights defenders—especially journalists; women; sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (SOGIE) activists; and land defenders—are particularly susceptible to state repression.

Defenders Coalition been able to extend legal help to activists who have been arbitrarily detained by police. And they’ve directly supported nearly two dozen others who have encountered extreme hardships due to COVID-19. Since the onset of the pandemic, Defenders Coalition has directly provided eight activists with food and shelter, offered medical and psychosocial care to six others, and even relocated ten SOGIE activists who faced hostility in their communities.

The Fund supports the urgent work of Defenders Coalition through our Enabling Environments Program, which assists activists facing and resisting restrictions.