On the surface, Susan Kigula’s story is one of pure grit and determination. After being given a mandatory death sentence, Susan spent a decade on death row in Uganda.
But delving deeper, you can see that what has propelled her to the international justice stage is her compassion, bravery and ability to connect with others.
No one could have imagined that she would study law while imprisoned and free not only herself but hundreds of others from death row.
Now a prominent campaigner against the death penalty, we catch up with Susan to hear how her experience of incarceration propels her to secure justice for all women on a global scale.
My law degree has shaped me into a very analytical person.
I used my legal knowledge when I went to court for my mitigation, it helped me because I had the know-how of the legal issues in my court case. I worked hand in hand with my lawyers and I was the one guiding them on my case, unlike before [when I was initially sentenced when I didn’t have a lawyer] when I did not know anything about the law.
I used the knowledge I acquired to set up a legal office in my prison - Luzira Prison. Women who could not afford paid attorneys would come in and visit me for legal advice and counselling, so that they could represent themselves in court.
When I graduated with my University of London law degree and left prison, I worked with Justice Defenders to set up legal offices in prisons in Uganda and Kenya, training prisoners and prison officers. I managed the creation of a legal office in the biggest female prison in Nairobi - Langata. Equipping them with basic legal information which they could pass on to other prisoners. So that they can be able to also help themselves in their court cases.
Now, I’m a global ambassador for Justice Defenders.
Now, I am hugely involved in a global campaign against the death penalty.
I’ve been speaking at many congresses across the world, including the United Nations.
Recently I received an email from the office of the French President Emmanuel Macron, inviting me to attend his event. I thought: “Wow, this is the president inviting me, oh my.”
In October 2021, I went to the event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of France abolishing the death penalty. I spoke to Macron about the work that I’m doing and he said he’s going to continue to support the campaign against the death penalty.
I’ve also spoken personally with the Secretary-General of the UN at the time Ban Ki-moon about human rights and how we’re providing legal education in prisons – he was very impressed.
Being a woman has been beneficial.
I have won support from feminist groups but it has also caused a few disadvantages. Some men feel threatened, whenever a women stands up and talks about something, some think: ‘Oh wow, she’s a woman. How can she challenge us?’
When men aren’t self-assured in their work and when my name comes up they feel like I am taking their role. But of course, I’m strong and I’m continuing on.
I've been supporting incarcerated women and their families in their integration back to society.
Because when they come out of prison, they have no one to return to and they don't even know how they're going to survive in the outside world. So I’ve being working with them to make sure that they at least get a job to support themselves.
I have trained a group of women to advocate for the rights of women and girls in prison. We want the unjust imprisonment of women to stop because we are the ones that take care of the children, the homes and the nation.
I also support children of prisoners, many of whom end up on the streets, through my own organisation, giving them educational opportunities, taking care of all their basic welfare – food, medication and shelter. Because we want to give these children a chance in life. I am very passionate about those children because I also had a one-year-old daughter when I went to prison. I left her behind with my parents, but they died before I was released, so she went through challenges.
When I see these children are in school and they are happy, they're getting their lives back to normality, I feel happy and very fulfilled. Someone came and gave me an education when I was in prison. What I want is for them to feel what I felt. I want them to be proud of themselves. I want them to be proud of the fact that someone cares for them, people love them.
My friends, women who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, are looking at me as their hero.
They’re really very proud of me and they look at me as someone who understands. I always give them hope, because they remember me very well - we were together in those cells on death row, crying together.
They're very happy because they know wherever I go, whatever changes that I bring, they are part of those successes, celebrations and achievements.
Wherever I see people who are still incarcerated – innocent people are rotting in prison – that gives me the courage to go on and fight for them.
We don't have to give up. Every time I wake up and God has given me breath, he has given me life. I have to use that life, that breath, to benefit other people as well.
I know, myself alone, I can't do it.
But I know if we're a team, if we come together, if other people join us in any way they can, I know we can achieve the goal.
Fuel the defence now: become an advocate.