Helping Connect Muslim Heritage and Individual Rights

Muslim Centre for Justice and Law tells of how OHCHR has helped the organisation gain quick acceptance in a rather ‘rigid’ community.

Seven schools in central and eastern Uganda are proud owners of vibrant human rights clubs, thanks to efforts by the Muslim Centre for Justice and Law (MCJL) with support from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The clubs comprise of tens of ambitious young people and teachers dedicated to champion the human rights gospel to the dot. The clubs are not a formality, Jeffer Senganda, MCJL president tells us. They are meant to inculcate into the young people the beliefs that there is an ideal world where everyone is looked at as equal not by their age, sex, race or ethnic background.

Senganda says the clubs occasionally engage in drama that help drive home the human rights message. They compete among each other – debate and sing. This year’s theme, the rights of a Muslim girl, will see participants deliberate on how a Muslim girl can receive the holistic nurture without depending so much on some religious teachings that may support discrimination.

Besides, if there was a community that thought human rights were invented to challenge their being, it is the Muslims, says Senganda. 

Some members of the Muslim community thought if you emphasised rights of every individual, then it was a move to make women and children misbehave in society. Yet this was not the case. The real problem is that some members of the Muslim community and other people had not come to appreciate the fact that children being empowered to speak out and/or be accorded the necessary respect where necessary.

For that very reason – to offer the Muslim community a much needed knowledge on human rights and to be non-discriminative – MCJL was born.

Successes. MCJL, a not-for-profit organisation has tremendous achievements regarding imparting human rights knowledge and protecting the oppressed.

Among the outstanding successes is the fact that now many Muslim members call upon MCJL to reach out to their respective communities and teach what they need to or not to promote the rights of each other.

This comes at the heels of a spirited resistance of the human rights teachings that the organisation seeks to advance. “At first, some thought, for instance, that by saying women and children need respect, we were making them misbehave,” says Senganda.

“MCJL has managed to publish a number of materials on human rights that has helped demonstrate the connection between the Muslim heritage and individual rights.”

MCJL has been at the forefront of creating a mutual relationship with the security agencies, including the police and the army – creating a strong bond with the institutions and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

More often than not, the poor have been denied justice because they cannot afford to hire lawyers, but MCJL says this has to stop.

“Through its legal aid clinic, MCJL helps people who cannot afford professional legal fees with special emphasis to women and children,” as stipulated in the MCJL brochure. 

The organisation has also engaged other Muslim institutions like the Tablic community, they have recruited a substantial number of staff, including advocates, human rights experts to advance their work, which include giving legal aid, promotion and protection of human rights of the oppressed. 

They have been able to reach out and train different clerics – some of them are opinion leaders with a great following. All the general local community in various districts have been targeted. They are trained on the legal pathways and procedures they can use to access justice. Many people have gained from MCJL’s programmes where it has been involved in labour disputes – workers who have unfairly lost their jobs are helped to be compensated and, or re-instated.

Working with OHCHR has been a blessing. Many people are willing to sit and listen to you when they hear you have a partnership with a UN agency, says Senganda.

Working with OHCHR gave us the credibility we needed, Senganda adds.

The office has also trained and improved the capacity of MCJL staff to first and foremost understand human rights doctrines, and then push the rights agenda effectively.

The office has been critical in investigating claims of human rights abuse, especially when some of our members have been arrested – they follow up with relevant security agencies.

The Challenges. There have been resistance from different cycles of the Muslim community – some arguing that MCJL was just seeking to advance unacceptable behaviours among their members. He says some people think there are others who cannot enjoy their full rights because of the religious teachings.

And there are not many Muslim civil society organisations – which makes MCJL’s work so demanding amidst financial constraints. The organisation would have loved its presence all over the country.

Looking Ahead. MCJL looks at continuing advocacy making the Muslim community well aware of the dangers of child trafficking.

Senganda says many Muslim members have allegedly been involved in child trafficking, but they indulge in it unknowingly.  MCJL is looking forward to extending human rights clubs to more schools in different parts of the country.

“Through these clubs, people will get to understand and appreciate the doctrines of human rights,” Senganda says.  “At least, we target them when they are still young so that they grow up knowing that everyone’s rights must be respected.”