“It was really life changing, just being there and experiencing the respite, and peace, and security. … I didn’t know I needed those things until I was at Colby. When I stood to speak at the Colby community in my main speech, I wasn’t afraid of being attacked.”
The Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights at Colby College is pleased to announce the selection of Clare Byarugaba of Uganda as our 2014 Oak Fellow. Byarugaba is the co-coordinator of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, which was founded in 2009 to fight efforts in Uganda to criminalize homosexuality as well activism on behalf of the LGBTI community. Although they lost their short-term struggle in February, when a draconian “anti-homosexuality” bill was signed into law, Byarugaba and the coalition continue to work under extremely difficult conditions to defend the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Ugandans.
Despite being just 27 years old, Byarugaba is exceptionally accomplished. She helped organize Uganda’s first gay pride event, joined the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University, lobbied tirelessly against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, and now pushes fearlessly for its repeal. In 2011, she received a Human Rights Defenders award from the U.S. State Department.
Before assuming her prominent role with the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Byarugaba worked with Ice Breakers Uganda as a finance officer and women’s coordinator, focusing on LGBT rights and health care. She also conducted research for the National Democratic Institute in Kampala. These experiences, coupled with her own journey of self-discovery, inspired her work in the field of human rights. Living with Uganda’s virulent homophobia and gender inequality, she faces a double challenge as a woman and lesbian activist.
Due to her controversial work, Byarugaba has received countless threats and has been forced to move several times. This feeling of dread only increased when a popular tabloid recently published her photograph and identified her as a “gay recruiter.” In 2011, openly gay Ugandan human rights activist and former Oak candidate David Kato was murdered shortly after appearing on the cover of a similar tabloid listing prominent gay Ugandans under the words, “Hang Them.” Byarugaba is undaunted in the face of extreme risk and adversity: “Despite the precariousness this work positions me in, what I do is not in vain.” She believes that grassroots activists “have the best shot at ending the violation of human rights of LGBTI persons in Uganda and we shall be held responsible for the freedoms of those that come after us.”
When she returned to Uganda, she found it was getting harder and harder to work as an LGBT rights activist while still in an LGBT organization, she said. Byarugaba is now the equality and non-discrimination coordinator of Chapter Four Uganda. “The fact that Chapter Four is a mainstream organization allows me a bit of security.”
Additional security was offered through the fellowship: With part of her fellowship stipend, she was able to purchase a car. “This car accords me a level of security, like you have no idea, this car saved me so many times,” said Byarugaba, for whom taking public transport isn’t safe. “So having this vehicle and being able to move from work, from home, from my social life, and be safe and feel safe is so meaningful.” At Chapter Four, she was also able to fulfill a dream that she started and cultivated at Colby—introducing PFLAG in Uganda and bringing together families and allies of the LGBTQ community.