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Helen-Kijo Bisimba: A strong selfless human rights activist

Born in 1954 in Kilimanjaro area of Moshi region, Dr Kijo- Bisimba is now the current Executive Director of the country’s Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) a civic body that ensures every Tanzanian individual’s human rights are protected and respected from all sorts of abuses.

Her passion for activism started in the early 70’s while still at Korogwe High School in Tanga region. Here she refused to yield to pressure from her teachers who accused her of writing a defamatory letter to the school head, an act that led to her suspension from the school for a while. This act shaped her firm stand for justice and nearly 40 years down the line; this courageous woman is fighting for the rights of local marginalized people, men and women both young and old, in her country.

“My father apologized on my behalf but the teachers refused, “1973 is still fresh in my memory like yesterday; I was the assistant head girl in my school so how could they think of me that way after entrusting me in a leadership position? So I opted to resign after the accusation and faced suspension from the position. Later on I faced them and apologized for a crime that I never committed” says Dr Kijo-Bisimba.

This incident awakened her and she swore that no one will take advantage or abuse anyone’s rights and that justice should be the answer to protecting the lives of Tanzanian citizens. “On the 26th of June this year, around midnight I received a call from troubled medical doctors who had gone on strike to inform me of a missing colleague and I was in shock and started questioning myself what has he done. All I knew Dr Stephen Ulimboka, was demanding for the doctors rights, just like other citizens” she wondered.

She stood by the doctors and demanded that the government should involve private investigators in determining who was behind the kidnapping and assault of Dr Stephen Ulimboka which left him battling for his life, to ensure justice is done. But that was not the only incident Dr Kijo-Bisimba, a PHD holder in law from the University of Warwick United Kingdom stood up to advocate for people’s rights together with other activists.

In 2001, Dr Kijo- Bisimba boldly took the step of becoming the first woman in the country to put up a statement against the government, after many people were killed in Zanzibar following protests over the outcome of the elections. The move later earned her an international recognition as she was the first Tanzanian woman to receive the Tanzania Woman of Courage Award which was issued by the American Embassy in Tanzania in 2008. The award is published annually to honour Tanzanian women who have distinguished themselves through meritorious service to their society.

Dr Helen received the award in recognition of her commitment, perseverance and determination in pushing the agenda for human rights and social justice. On the 10th of October this year Dr Kojo-Bisimba will celebrate her 58th birthday with enthusiasm and confidence that one day she will see a Tanzanian society free of human rights abuses. Coincidentally the anti death penalty campaign day falls on her birthday the 10th of October and she says she would want to see the capital punishment abolished in the county.

“Everybody has the right to live regardless of the crimes they have committed”, she insists, adding that “many people don’t understand when I write about issues regarding human rights and more so about the death penalty and mostly think that I am for it” poses Dr Kijo-Bisimba. Tanzania in general is not different from other African countries, as records of human rights abuses such as extra judicial killings are escalating.

According to the Tanzania human rights report 2011, there is little to celebrate as records of human rights abuse continue to escalate ranging from human rights violation and abuses in the area of rights to development, right to life and peoples participation in governance and provision of social services. The report further indicates that other violations and abuses include the presence of the death penalty, extra judicial killings, killings related to witchcraft, mob violence, free to participate in democratic process and domestic violence.

In 1996 Dr Kijo-Bisimba was recruited leader of LHRC and is among the founders of the organization. “I was challenged to take up the position of the Executive Director where I found my niche to support people irrespective of gender, race and religion. I took up the position to work for Tanzanians” she says. Her four children also inspired by her hard work are now doing well in their respective jobs, an achievement she is proud of after becoming a widow in 1994. Today two of her children are civil engineers, one is a medical doctor and another one is an accountant.

In 2008-2011 she took a break to study for her PhD in the United Kingdom under the FORD foundation scholarship, becoming among the few women in Tanzania to earn a PhD especially in the area of law and human rights. Her PhD research focused on the rights of the children. But why the interest for children in her thesis, “I wanted to give the African child a voice and see how they perceived the government structure in the country and I think in understanding children a lot can be achieved by any government in the future”, she says adding “remember today’s children are the leaders of tomorrow, “ says Dr Helen.

Prior to joining LHRC, Dr Kijo- Bisimba was a teacher of English and Swahili at the Institute of Adult education where she worked for 10 years. She was encouraged to study Law by her late husband and at the time she joined LHRC she was still working at the institute and volunteering at Women in Law and Development in Africa ( WILDAF), an organization she represented at the Beijing International Conference on women development in 1995.

Dr Kijo-Bisimba is an amazing leader. She has motivated her staff with her motherly love and hard work. Janet Shija Nsengwa, is her  Personal Assistant (PA) and has worked with her since 2001. She testifies that her executive director is a hardworking strong woman. The information officer at the LHRC Rose Mwalongo speaks of her boss with fondness and is also inspired by the work of Dr Bisimba in fighting for the rights of the marginalized groups and gender based violence.

She describes Dr Kijo- Bisimba as a hard working leader who speaks boldly and fearless. “She is a goal getter, practices what she preaches and nothing can stop her when she wants to achieve something, “says Mwalongo. Mwalongo shares that she is impressed with her executive director’s love for children who despite being a widow takes care of some orphaned children at her home and is also a member of the widows association at her church.

Dr Kijo-Bisimba believes that even though Tanzania is a beautiful and peaceful country, there are some things which are currently happening and if not sorted will bring chaos to the country. She says nowadays, the issue of tribalism is coming up and discrimination based on religion, something that was not there in the past. “I believe it’s a challenge that the government needs to work on so that our country can continue benefiting the peace and stability we have”, she noted.

This courageous woman appreciates the contribution of women in today’s society. “Most organizations run by women are prosperous and we now see more women graduates”, she confidently cited. Further she said in villages, women are becoming village heads compared to the past. We still have a long way to go but a lot of changes have taken place,” says the woman lawyer. Her advice to the women is that “when given a chance, women should be brave enough to take up the chance and do their best for common good because until the patriarch system in the country comes to an end, women will always be judged,” she says.

She cited an example of herself, “I almost refused to take up my current position when I was challenged to do so, something which has made me help so many people in society fight for and recognize their rights.” Her major challenge is resources. “There are lots of human rights issues to follow up but resources are inadequate and it is so painful when you really want to do something to help the citizens but constrained by resources,” says Dr Kijo-Bisimba.

The role model woman activist leader would like to see a Tanzanian society where pregnant girls are allowed to go back to school after delivery. “Sex education should be included in the curriculum so that girls understand, sometimes young girls are lured into having sex because they have no access to information,” she suggests adding that parents should also play their role by talking to their girls.

“I am also saddened by the fact that every hour either a woman or a child dies during delivery, something that made me lead a campaign dubbed white ribbon in 2006, I believe more lives can be saved if we have adequate health facilities in place,” Dr Bisimba recommends. What will keep Dr. Kijo-Bisimba busy after she retires from this hard work? “I want to do a lot of writing and share my child hood experiences for the sake of children in this country. I also want to use my experience at LHRC to write about Human Rights and governance issues,” Dr Kijo-Bisimba discloses.

Despite her busy schedule she always finds time to watch football with her sons and also sings in her local church choir, at the Lutheran Evangelical Church of Tanzania, “I love singing and cannot imagine my life without it,” she jokingly says and one can only wonder where such a powerful woman, who is a mother, grandmother and heads an organization that has brought much headway in improving the Human Rights situation in the country, can even have time to be part of a church choir.

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Author: Nasteha Mohammed & Shipeka Chibanda

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