Women in resistance - Interview with Dr Helen Kijo Bisimba

Press release

Dr Helen Kijo Bisimba is the Director of the Legal and Human Rights Center (LHRC), FIDH member in Tanzania

Photo : Sameer Kermalli

Tell us about your professional highlights
Having worked at LHRC for 18 years, this is a career highlight, as I was picked to lead this organization at its inception. Over the years we have been able to empower Tanzanians to know a their rights, assert their rights and speak out for their and other peoples rights. Civil Society wasn’t known much and we found that people in the villages were not aware of their rights. The organisation I lead is now one of the leading human rights organisation in the country. The programs I started have changed the situation from ignorance to assertion of rights.Humarights is now a household word. Now we have monitors in all districts following all human rights issues and paralegals in twenty eight districts. Further more, we advocated for labour matters and today we have new laws governing this. We have been providing legal aid and currently land matters have flared up since we started inviting investors. So in short, my career highlights are about advocacy for change in terms of policy, laws and practice.

What challenges have you faced when becoming a leading woman?
There was a time when the community did not perceive women as the correct gender to become leaders and this was disheartening initially. They would ask “where did you learn to talk like a man?”

Doing what I am doing we go against the status quo and naturally the government brands you as partisans for the opposition parties. There was a time a district commissioner called to say, “You’re waging a war.”

We have become vocal and don’t spare no quarters. We have recently taken the PM to court over things that he said. One of our parliamentary watch staff was told once that the director general of LHRC is ‘hated’. Social responsibility is not easy.

The hardest is probably when you start questioning what you are doing. People at home and neighbors begin worrying about your safety and give examples of people being kidnapped and tortured or killed because they ask questions. It makes you wonder if you’re doing the right thing.

What is your greatest success?
I personally had to intervene in a situation of 3 masai girls aged around 13 who had run from home, escaping FGM. It was sad as the parents didn’t know that it is against the law, the police didn’t either and couldn’t enforce the law. Sadly even the pastor who gave them sanctuary was beaten and charged with abducting the girls. The girls were returned and married away. We didn’t give up, and got permission for a private prosecution and took the parents to court. Fearing their parents would go to jail the girls decided not to testify. The positive side is that the parents understood their mistake and now we have them going around as pro anti-FGM ambassadors.

How are you perceived in your community?
Now it’s changing. There was a time they would say you are like a man, or call you “Iron lady.” Now you will see that several organizations that are running smoothly are being lead by women. The founders of LHRC took a chance with me 18 years ago, and I have kept my end of the promise.

A word for women inspired to take a leadership path
Know what you want, our upbringing and culture may not allow it but don’t despair. Follow your dreams! I did my doctorate at 53, there is no end to success as a woman, all you have to do is strive while believing.

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