Between 1989 and 2017, a total of 324 human rights advocates from 90 countries attended HRAP. In recent years, advocates have ranged from early career advocates who have cut their teeth in very urgent human rights situations to mid-career advocates who have founded organizations.
Below are the biographies of current Advocates and descriptions by select alumni as to why they became human rights advocates.
To see a list of additional past Advocates click here.
To read about more about the work of our Advocates click here .
South Africa, 2014
Founder and Director, Ikageng Itireleng AIDS Ministry
I am an activist at heart. I was a student in the 1976 uprisings in South Africa, and I saw how we as students did that, and how things changed around us as a result. And as we marched, I began to realize how many people actually fought for my country and how the world came together through boycotting certain South African products. As a young girl, I knew which was a “whites only” toilet and which was a “blacks only” toilet. If I were to get sick and a “whites only” ambulance came, I knew I would rather be dead than to be taken in that ambulance.
I began to ask myself, what is it that I can do to make the lives of those in my community better? Eventually, I began to look into the affairs of children, especially the challenges that were most affecting their lives. I began to realize that many of these issues were around HIV/AIDS. It saddens me to realize that 30 years into the HIV/AIDs pandemic, my country is not doing that good. When you read the reports, it’s almost like we’re going back in time as far as prevention is concerned. I want the world to know that they should not be fatigued by HIV/AIDS. I’m seeing much activity around the AIDS Conference and World AIDS Day, but it cannot be only during the conferences and commemorative events that we are so “awake” about HIV/AIDS. The fact of the matter is that children are still losing their parents to HIV. I just want the world to know that HIV/AIDS is still there and to let more research be done on how we could actually have a zero-tolerance of HIV/AIDS. I think the face of HIV/AIDS has always been a black woman and a black child, and that’s the truth. And how do we empower them so that we change that face into a face of hope? Money is needed, empowerment of women is needed, and gender-based violence needs to actually be addressed. I want to say to the world, especially to policy-makers, no, this is not how the children would want it to be. I just want to leave this world a better place for children. If I die having seen just a little bit of that, I would die a satisfied woman.
Through the Human Rights Advocates Program, I’ve been exposed to many different people and their knowledge. I’ve learned how other women are working: women from Kenya, women from Greenland, women from the Philippines, among others. I have been gathering information on how things could be done better back home, and how to use an evidence-based approach to my work, how to fundraise, and how to present my work. I’ve also been exposed to issues that I wasn’t as familiar with, such as LGBT issues. I will take this home with me. I am so grateful because I know for sure that when I get back home, we will move from being good to being great as an organization, because of what I’ve been exposed to here.
UN Women Representative and Project Manager, Ending Violence against Women
When asked about her domestic violence work, Minja Damjanovic says, “It found me. When I went to university, I wanted to volunteer--to make a difference somehow. My friend’s mother was in charge of a domestic violence organization. I started as a volunteer in 2002 answering the project’s crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence. Even though I had been trained extensively, I was terrified at first of answering these calls.”
As Damjanovic spent more time at the organization, she became more deeply involved. She says, “When I saw how little there was to offer in terms of state services, and the flaws in the system, I wanted to provide more options. Women would ask us to take them to a safe place and there weren’t any. Women would tell us, ‘He’s going to kill me. Can you help me? I am outside with my kids.’ It was terrible knowing that calling the police wouldn’t do anything and that there wasn’t a safe place for women to go. I then began my first advocacy project, collecting signatures on a petition for a women’s shelter in my town.”
Damjanovic observed other systemic issues that further barred justice for victims of domestic violence. She reports, “There were no measures to help women who were economically dependent on abusive husbands. There is also a reluctance of the police and public prosecutor’s office to investigate cases of domestic violence. If a case is actually investigated, and gets to court, the perpetrators get fines or short jail sentences at best. There is extreme stereotyping in the court and the judicial system – courts do not want to imprison perpetrators because they worry about who will provide for the family. There is also dysfunction in the system. In one situation, the judge didn’t know the perpetrator had already been in court for domestic violence twice before – even though it had been that same court. It is very challenging to work in a system that is so flawed and weak.”
Damjanovic is now focused on the implementation and harmonization of domestic violence legislation with the Istanbul Convention, monitoring of domestic violence trials, and installing a gender mainstreaming mechanism in the underserved Brčko District. Damjanovic will also work to improve her organization’s fundraising strategies. She credits the fundraising, storytelling and documentation sessions of HRAP for her development of enhanced skills in these areas. She says, “From HRAP I have gained skills in international advocacy and lobbying—now I know how to frame our work in a clearer and stronger way. This will help our fundraising, which is essential to our sustainability. We also can do better to document the work that we do."
Damjanovic recalls her favorite part of HRAP: “I met women activists who have been an inspiration. Working on women’s empowerment is half a step forward and two steps back. It motivates me to see how many other women are working on these same issues—their courage and passion gives me more motivation to continue my work."
National Adviser, Danish Institute for Human Rights - Zambia
2003 Advocate Charles Dinda Founded and served as Executive Director of Law and Development Association (LADA) in Zambia from 1997 to 2010. LADA is a non-governmental civil society organization dedicated to advancing the legal, social and economic status of women and children by increasing their access to justice and securing their rights through legal education awareness, training of paralegals at the community level, provision of free legal assistance and representation in the courts of law in Zambia. Dinda managed the overall business of LADA, designed training curriculum for the paralegals trainings and supervised the activities of paralegals at community level. He later foundedZambia Women and Girls Foundation (ZaWGF) which protects women and girls from gender-based violence through enhancing the access to treatment, rehabilitation and menstrual hygiene and legal representation for sexually abused women as well as people living with HIV/AIDS. He is still a board member to ZaWGF even though he is currently serving as Senior Legal Advisor at DIHR in Zambia where he is serving as Senior Legal Advisor providing technical advice to European Union and GIZ funded project called Program for the Legal Empowerment and Enhanced Justice Delivery (PLEED) in Zambia.
Dinda shares his story about his work after participating in the 2003 HRAP:
“Participation in HRAP assisted me in many ways. First, I was able to improve the effectiveness of my organization. Also, I could improve my advocacy skills which eventually led staff and local communities to internally empower themselves with human rights issues.” As a result, his organization was appointed by the government to provide human rights training to the lower courts in Zambia. Also, the empowerment among his staff members and local communities synergized other local NGOs to enhance active interactions and human rights services. After his participation in HRAP, he continued to attend numerous trainings and certificate programs focusing on human rights topics such as health education, HIV/AIDS, human rights education and now access to justice.
He also highlights that HRAP provides invaluable networking resources for the development of his organization. In 2003, he met students from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. After HRAP, the students Columbia University worked with him on an assessment of his organization’s program, Paralegal Services Program. The results of the assessment motivated him to develop a project called Paralegal Kids Program which teaches children in Zambia to be aware of child abuse and available reporting mechanisms. Also, after attending the resource mobilization skills training provided by HRAP, he acquired 12 funding partners at both the domestic and international levels. He states, “I was able to build LADA a bigger office and rent other NGOs some space in the office as a fundraising venture. Many women and girls have broken their silence on social injustice and gender-based violence in southern province in Zambia.”
He concludes, “I can never forget the first weekend when I arrived in New York City. Walking on the snow for the first time in my life, I could interact with a lot of people from different countries and cultural backgrounds. I benefited a lot from HRAP by taking quality courses at Columbia University. My experience with HRAP established who I am right now. I appreciate the supportive efforts from HRAP staffs including Paul Martin who was willing to give considerate advices regarding my work back then. Above all, the classmates of 2003 HRAP gave me the courage to continue my fight for human rights violation in Zambia.”
—Article composed by Junghwa Lee, Program Coordinator, June 2011
January 2014 update: Dinda is currently working as a National Adviser with the Danish Institute for Human Rights – Zambia on “The Enhancement of Access to Justice in the Local Courts in Zambia” project.
Director, Drebezova and Partners
Oksana Drebezova is a 2001 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program from Belarus. She is the Director of Drebezova and Partners, a law service and consulting firm based in Belarus. In addition to her work at Drebezova and Partners, Drebezova serves as the Chair of the Association for Anti-Corruption Practices and Leader of a Belarus-based group facilitated by the NGO Transparency International: The Global Coalition Against Corruption.
The Human Rights Advocates Program at Columbia University provides advocates such as Drebezova with the opportunity to undergo further advocacy training, take graduate courses in the areas of their expertise and develop new skills. After graduating from HRAP, Drebezova returned to her home state of Belarus to continue her work as Director of the Legal Education in Human Rights at the Association of Women Lawyers of Belarus (AWLB). AWLB educates Belarusians about their rights and addresses their legal concerns. Through various projects, AWLB provides information on the country's political processes and local human rights issues as well as raising legal and civic awareness. In 2002, she completed her Bachelors at the Belarusian State Economic University.
Drebezova remains in contact with her fellow participants of the Human Rights Program in 2001.
—Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, June 2013
Senior Lawyer, Delphine K. Djiraibe's Law Firm
Delphine Djiraibe recalls the importance of the tools and education she learned during her time in HRAP by saying, "I still have course materials that I am using, especially for advocacy and fundraising.” When Delphine came to HRAP from her home country of Chad, she was serving as a human rights attorney at Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (ATPDDH), an organization that she co-founded.
Since her participation in HRAP, Delphine has had many notable accomplishments. After returning to Chad, she initiated prosecution of Hissen Habre, the country's former dictator, and created a network of civil society organizations to advocate for a peace and reconciliation process. She also opened the Public Interest Law Center in Chad, which is the first of its kind in Central Africa. Delphine continued her post-secondary studies and completed an LLM program at American University Washington College of Law where she majored in international human rights and environmental law.
When asked what the greatest benefit was of her participation in HRAP, Djiraibe responds, "It helped me connect to the international world” and it gave her “a high profile.”
Because of her extensive grassroots, organizing, and advocacy work in Chad, Djiraibe was selected for the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2004. The award is presented to honor courageous and innovative individuals striving for social justice.
Today, Djiraibe is a member of the boardd of the African Coalition for Corporate's Accountability and the Coalition on Human Rights in Development. She has also served on the board of trustees of the Center for International Environmental Law. At the same time, she acts as Senior Lawyer at Delphine K. Djiraibe's Law Firm, and as Chief Attorney with Public Interest Law Center. Delphine is the national coordinator of the Follow-up Committee on Peace and Reconciliation Initiative. Her regular duties include giving legal advice, representing clients before tribunals and courts, representing organizations, and regularly contributing to advocacy work and fundraising for her organizations.
- Article composed by Andrew Richardson, Program Assistant, June 2010, updated by Chiora Taktakishvili, Fulbright Exchange Visitor, July 2019