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 .
Executive Director, National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda (NCHRD-U)
Robert Kirenga is the Executive Director of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda (NCHRD-U), a network organization focused on advocating and securing the rights of human rights defenders who have been threatened or are under attack. In addition to his work with NCHRD-U, Kirenga serves as a human rights trainer for the national human rights organizations, law enforcement agencies, civil society groups, and institutions of higher learning. Over the course of his career, Kirenga has worked in Uganda, Somalia, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Kirenga earned a Master of Arts in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights from the University of Oslo and a post-graduate diploma in International Law, and Organization from the Institute of Social Students at The Hague.
Democratic Republic Of Congo, 2016
Director, Justice Pour Tous
Kitungano is the Director of Justice Pour Tous. Over the years, he has developed expertise in investigating natural resource exploitation. With his colleagues at Justice Pour Tous, Kitungano highlights the limitations of the Congolese mining code by talking to the local press, delivering speeches, and performing sketches. This kind of work helps local people to understand their legal rights and which new laws are needed to end their exploitation. He has published several papers and research reports and spoken at several international conferences about the relationship between mining armed conflict and human rights abuses in eastern DRC.
Coordinator, Adivasi Women’s Network
I learned in my childhood that rights are never given. As the second of four children, I learned about survival of the fittest. I have applied this lesson to all aspects of my life.
I experienced discrimination in the family, at the community level, in religious institutions, and at the work place because of my gender, ethnicity, and class. Instead of accepting discrimination, I have always found alternatives.
From the time I became aware of these discriminatory ideologies and attitudes, I started raising my voice strategically. The first step was to seek a strong network with other women who have had similar experiences or concerns. By taking a preventive approach through various activities such as awareness raising, capacity building, and skills development, I have started to address the issues of gender-based violence faced by the Adivasi (Indigenous) women, focusing more on the strategic needs of Adivasi women to strengthen them from within. It’s with passion that I seek to empower Adivasi women because the outcome also gives me a sense of empowerment.
When I first got information about HRAP, I thought this was exactly what I needed. For me, joining HRAP was like turning the impossible into a reality because each part of the program has had a deep impact. The best element of HRAP is that it connects us with other advocates and gives opportunities to impart the knowledge and experience of diverse human rights advocacy efforts. When I return home, I’ll pass on the knowledge and information both practically and theoretically.
Program Officer for Climate Change, Indigenous Information Network
I did not start out working in human rights. All through my schooling, I was thinking I would go into the banking sector or other corporate sector, and never did it cross my mind that I’d end up working in a civil society organization. I was still in college when I came across an organization that was coming to the community to do trainings, and I was motivated to join them as I believed in their mission. I became attached to the work, specifically the work on climate change, because I could see food security issues in the community. I saw a mine company arrive, extract and leave--with no benefit to the community whatsoever. We wanted to stop the mining and to have a participatory approach with the community to discuss how it would impact them. I also saw these communities stressed by lack of water access as an impact of climate change, having to walk long distances for little water.
I was drawn to HRAP because it pulls in a lot of people from different backgrounds. I really wanted to draw on the experiences from others in the field to build up my work. I especially wanted to be able to bring human rights arguments into the discussions with developers about how they are planning their projects because in our work with the indigenous movement, this has created a lot of challenges.
I’ve really enjoyed the workshops offered by HRAP, especially the fundraising workshops and the one on stress management. These workshops helped me to see things in a different way and to see that things don’t have to be complicated. It’s been an amazing experience taking classes at Columbia University—it’s made me stretch my limits and my understanding. I really enjoyed my class on Environment Conflict Resolution—it helped me to understand the aspect of conflict in relation to natural resources, climate change and how you can use that to add to your case with policymakers. Within the international process, I think my understanding of the human rights and development nexus will enable me to better engage with the international advocacy. Before HRAP, I was doing some work on documenting elders, climate change and traditional knowledge, and how communities were adapting. I didn’t know that was considered oral history until I participated in the oral history workshops through HRAP. I realized I’m already doing that! I think HRAP has made me realize how much more I could do to make my work better, and I think I have the knowledge and confidence now to really continue with the work when I return home.
When I get back to Kenya, my organization will host sessions where I’ll be transmitting what I learned from the workshops and from the advocacy trainings on media, and I’ll also be incorporating what I learned here into my work with the local indigenous women’s leadership school.
February 2017 Update: In November 2016, Edna was offered the opportunity to participate in the two year SGP Indigenous Peoples Fellowship Initiative at the Global Environment Facility. This fellowship is aimed towards offering Edna support as she builds leadership skills and learns new strategies for better engaging in climate change policy and initiative implementation at national levels. She was also selected in 2016 as an advisory board member to the International Indigenous Womens’ Forum (FIMI) to provide leadership guidance for Africa region.
Founder, Vilole Images Productions
Musola Catherine Kaseketi joined in HRAP in 2013, 11 years after founding Vilole Images Productions, a nonprofit dedicated to developing the film industry in Zambia and using that platform to promote disability rights. The cause itself is quite personal for Kaseketi. When she was eighteen months old, a medical mistake damaged her left leg, leaving her unable to walk without difficulty for the rest of her life. Kaseketi writes: “I was a woman, black and had a disability… I was overlooked.” Enduring mistreatment by her stepmother in her early life and by her community overall, Kaseketi developed an incredible determination to succeed in spite of hardship.
During her time at HRAP, Kaseketi’s drive allowed her to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the program. She states: “There is so much knowledge I acquired from participating in HRAP that has been useful to my work.” Kaseketi was further inspired after hearing the kind of work that her fellow advocates were involved in, and still keeps in contact with them to this day. In fact, one of the professors whose classes Kaseketi attended while at Columbia University, Melissa Warnke, became her mentor and went on to write an article about her after being moved by her story. Apart from meeting colleagues that would be an important part of her network, the program gave Kaseketi extremely memorable experiences. She writes:
“My greatest memory is being one of the speakers at the Leinter Centre for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School during the symposium on disability rights. The symposium was open to scholars, practitioners and the public, and highlighted the backdrops of rural poverty and educational underdevelopment as barriers to inclusion and to education for persons with disabilities. Inclusion in relation to disability, especially women and girls with disabilities, is a critical issue in some developing countries, thus this meant much to me.”
Today, Kaseketi is as motivated as ever to continue paving the way for change for people with disabilities. She recently hosted the first Zambian Conference on Gender Based Violence and Disability after doing community screenings and workshops in 6 provinces across the country; the theme for 2016 was “Awareness Raising through Film: Addressing and Preventing Gender Based Violence and Discrimination among Women and Girls with Disabilities.” Though it can be difficult to cope with the pressure of being Zambia’s first female film director and an inspiration to so many people, this only pushes Kaseketi to keep fighting for a cause that is deeply important to her.
Written by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2016.
Executive Director and Founder, Prisoners Future Foundation
Geoffrey is a Zambian prison reform advocate in a unique position to know the challenges faced by the country’s prison system: he is a former prisoner himself, having previously served 10 years. Geoffrey says “I first discovered the potential in me when I was a prisoner. I was able to convince the prison guards to allow me a place to study where I learned as much as I possibly could. Instead of letting prison take away my rights, I found my voice to claim my rights and eventually the rights of others within the prison system.” Geoffrey recalls abysmal conditions within the prison, including long pre-trial detention, extreme overcrowding and lack of health care. Geoffrey says, “I saw my colleagues finish their sentences without an appeal coming out, so they stayed. I remember how long I stayed after being arrested myself before I was able to appear before the court, much longer than the 24 hours stipulated in the Constitution. There were health challenges—people were dying day in and day out. Tuberculosis was everywhere. By the time someone was diagnosed with TB, 10-15 more people would have contracted it due to the overcrowded conditions.”
In prison, Geoffrey actively pursued studies in project planning and monitoring & evaluation. In 2007 he was released early for good behavior. This came as a surprise to Geoffrey, and he quickly came to directly experience the challenges faced by prisoners reentering society after prison. Geoffrey’s education assisted his job search, and he obtained a position with a PEPFAR-funded project on HIV/AIDS. Geoffrey says “Despite this job, my heart wanted to work on issues related to the prisons. Around this time, the government reached out to me for an audit they were doing on prison conditions, as they had heard of my educational successes in prison.” The project included research visits to prisons in Zambia – including the one where Geoffrey had served his sentence. Of this experience, Geoffrey says “It gave me memories and also gave me hope, in that my new plans for my life were a result of passing through prison. As I went around all of the prisons, it was saddening to see my colleagues who had been released prior to me serving in other prisons. This helped to illuminate the vital importance of reintegration services.”
In 2011, Geoffrey founded his own organization, Prisoners Future Foundation (PFF). Geoffrey says “Prisoners are human beings and they need a true second chance. They need hope and they need to be encouraged. I felt like I could be the right person to be a part of this bandwagon, so that I could give voice to these concerns on their behalf. They were not being given a platform to voice their concerns. The fact that I had been down this path made me realize I needed to work for my colleagues so that they could enjoy their human rights.”
Geoffrey now hopes to advance PFF’s work and to make PFF sustainable. Geoffrey says, “The networking with current and past HRAP participants was my favorite aspect of the program. I was able to learn from my fellow advocates who are working for prison reform in their countries, and I am very thankful for this. For me, doing this program was an opportunity to open windows into understanding different ways that this work is being done, from Western countries to countries like my own.”
April 2017 Update: Geoffrey is currently working towards policy changes at Mukobeko Prison, which is a maximum security prison in Zambia.
Updated by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2017.
For Hasina Khan, the pursuit of human rights developed from personal experience. She was born into a family and community that valued religion and traditional conservatism. As the fourth daughter in a very traditionally conservative family, she explains, “I was the first woman educated and the first non-believer in compulsory marriage for women. The traditional family demands marriage for women and does not accept a non-heterosexual person.” In rejecting these norms, she has had to separate herself from her family and her community, forcing her to fend for herself in order to pursue a full education and a more free life. Khan found strength and support in the grassroots women’s rights movement more than 20 years ago, especially at the organization Awaaz-e-Niswaan (Voices of Women). “Through Awaaz, I met and saw lots of women with similar experiences and in similar situations as my own.” Since then, Khan has been working with women who struggle with the traditional and religious norms that do not welcome them. “People have the freedom to take a stand and say that this is my choice,” Khan says. “If you are aware but silent this is problematic because the laws will not change.” While change has been slow, she readily speaks about the lessons her career in human rights has taught her. “It’s not magic that happens and makes change,” she says. “I expect not for today, but for tomorrow.” As a testament to her words, she explains that her nieces are talking openly to her and looking to her for guidance in their own challenges. Her community has also recognized the success she has achieved in her career. “They look to me now because of my awareness and successes. I continue my work for them and other women. I can’t jump in to say the traditional family and laws are not correct, but I can make the choice and help other women to make theirs.”
Director of International Hepatitis/HIV Policy and Advocacy, Treatment Action Group
Before participating in the Human Rights Advocates Program in 2009, Kaplan had worked for nearly ten years in Bangkok as the co-founder and Policy and Development Director at the Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group (TTAG). When asked about her experience at HRAP, Kaplan writes, “I gained practical knowledge and skills that built upon my human rights work in Thailand and globally, and I made contacts with extraordinary advocates who continue to inspire and motivate me to continue my work.”
The Human Rights Advocates Program is a four-month program at Columbia University that provides participants with the resources to learn and grow as human rights advocates. Advocates are required to audit at least two graduate level courses at Columbia University. Kaplan writes, “The opportunity to engage and study with prestigious human rights and law professors expanded my knowledgebase and shaped my perspective on human rights.” In addition to graduate coursework in law and human rights, HRAP supplemented her human rights work in Thailand through advocacy trainings, valuable workshops and networking opportunities. In reflecting on her time at HRAP, she concludes, “I gained insights, connections, new ideas and exposure to extraordinary people and useful resources through the Human Rights Advocates program. “
Since her participation in HRAP, Kaplan started a new chapter in her career. She is the Director of International Hepatitis/HIV Policy and Advocacy at the Treatment Action Group. In this role, she develops and implements rights-based advocacy campaigns to promote access to Hepatitis C treatment in low and middle-income countries. Through her work, she influences government leaders and policymakers as well as funding agencies to promote and ensure the right to health and life for marginalized populations such as people living with HIV/AIDS.
She has co-authored numerous publications in collaboration with the University of British Columbia Urban Health Research Institute on barriers to healthcare access and problems of police abuse for people who inject drugs in Thailand. She has given numerous presentations, including a plenary at the International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) in 2011. She was recently selected to serve on the Human Rights Reference Group for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria (GFATM).
She is based in New York City and volunteers her time as an advisor to the Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group. She remains in touch with many of her fellow advocates such as Mary Akrami, Nazibrola Janezashvili, Akinyi Ocholla, Florencia Rui and Anna Kirey.
—Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, April 2013
November 2016 Update: Kaplan has worked on health and human rights issues in Asia since 1988. She spent 20 years working with grassroots HIV activists in Thailand on access to treatment for highly marginalized populations, namely people who use drugs, migrant sex workers, and people in prison. As the co-founder of Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group, Kaplan helped bring attention to the human rights of people who use drugs and supported the founding of Thai Drug Users’ Network, which received a groundbreaking grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria for peer-led harm reduction services in Thailand. Kaplan also worked at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and Treatment Action Group, where she helped mobilize a global movement for access to affordable hepatitis C virus treatment in low- and middle-income countries.nKaplan is a recipient of the 2009 John M. Lloyd Foundation HIV/AIDS Leadership Award, and the Health GAP Founders Award.
—Written by Karyn Kaplan
Executive Director, Platform for Labour Action (PLA)
Lilian Keene-Mugerwa is a 2004 Graduate from the Human Rights Advocates Program from Uganda. Currently, Keene-Mugerwa is the Executive Director of the Platform for Labour Action (PLA), which promotes and defends labor rights in Uganda, placing emphasis on the rights of marginalized workers in the informal sector. As Executive Director, she is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the PLA’s overall advocacy strategy and the day-to-day management of the organization.
HRAP is a four-month interdisciplinary program that provides Advocates with the opportunity to learn from expert practitioners through a variety of skills-building workshops and training. When asked about how HRAP assisted her work at PLA, Keene-Mugerwa writes, “My participation in HRAP gave me the knowledge and skills to build the Platform for Labour Action as a leading advocate for labor rights.” The human rights advocacy trainings offered through HRAP gave her practical advocacy skills that she applied to PLA’s labour rights campaign. These skills helped her advocate for significant reforms in the social security sector. In addition to the human rights advocacy trainings, the media trainings proved to be incredibly beneficial to her career. She writes that she can confidently draft press releases and hold press conferences with specific demands, furthering the work of her organization.
Human Rights Officer, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan
Khan is a 2002 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program from India. Following her time with HRAP, Khan returned to India and worked in the state of Gujarat with women survivors of sexual violence, fighting to get the strategic use of sexual violence during the 2002 unrest in Gujarat recognized and addressed in order to secure justice for survivors. Khan went on to complete a Masters in Law from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in 2005 through an international fellowship program of the Ford Foundation.
Khan then went on to work with the United Nations Mission in Darfur from 2005-2007 on documenting and setting up remedial measures for sexual and gender-based violence in collaboration with government authorities. Starting in 2009, Khan worked in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq with the UN on post- conflict reconstruction, specifically supporting the development of legislative frameworks and the issue of conflict-related detainees.
Khan currently works as a Human Rights Officer and team leader for the women’s rights team of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Her duties include monitoring, reporting and building capacity of local institutions on women’s rights and gender. She also works on the implementation of UN Security Council 1325 and subsequent UN Security Council Resolutions on women’s participation in political and peace processes.
When asked about the impact that HRAP had on her capacity and skills, Khan says "The exposure I had through the program broadened my understanding of international human rights law and advocacy tools. The greatest benefit was the exposure to a different education system which helped me with pursuing further education. It also exposed me to a broader global scenario than only my own context. I learned a lot in terms of issues in other parts of the world and advocacy and campaign methods being used, and I learned about formulating my arguments using international human rights law."
Founder and Executive Director, Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project
Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, a 1996 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program, began his advocacy work with the organization, Human Rights Concern (HURICO), located in his home country, Uganda. Kaguri co-founded HURICO to help victims of human rights violations in Uganda and to educate the public about their rights. Reflecting on the impact of HRAP to his work, Kaguri says, “Without skills and knowledge from the Advocates Program, I would not have continued with HURICO.”
HRAP provides its participants with a greater understanding of human rights tools and methods as well as the confidence and leadership skills to enhance their individual pursuits. In addition, many participants take advantage of the courses available at Columbia University and the infinite resources available in New York City. Kaguri recalls that during the program, “I started using a computer for the first time and never stopped.”
Since leaving HRAP, Kaguri has made a number of professional and personal accomplishments. He served as a Program Assistant for People’s Decade for Human Rights Education (PDHRE) after having met the founder and director during his participation in HRAP. He also completed a second bachelor’s degree, specializing in fundraising and management, from Indiana University as well as received numerous certificates in various areas of fundraising.
Kaguri currently works with the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project, which he founded and directs. Nyaka builds schools for HIV/AIDS orphans in rural Uganda, using a holistic approach to provide free education, uniforms, books, healthcare, shelter for the children, community water, and a community library. Kaguri has successfully started two schools in the villages of Nyaka and Kutamba, the impacts of which have been profound for the two villages and brought wide praise to Kaguri. He has been named Ugandan of the Year, Ugandan Making a Difference, and Social Entrepreneur by Global Giving. In addition, in June 2010, Kaguri and Nyaka were featured in Time Magazine. He is also the Associate Director of Development at Michigan State University.
Kaguri has also completed publishing a book entitled “The Price of Stones: Building a School for My Village,” released in June 2010 and which details the founding, evolution, and impact of the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project. However, Kaguri still recalls his experience in HRAP as a crucial component of his accomplishments, saying the greatest benefit had been “networking with fellow professionals and other organizations all over the world.” He concludes, “Without this program, I would not have accomplished what I have accomplished. Our children, their grannies, and communities Nyaka serves would not have anything if not for the exposure I got while at Columbia University.”
November 2016 update: Kaguri has been awarded the 2015 Waislitz Global Citizen Award, named a 2012 CNN Hero, a Heifer International Hero, recognized in Time Magazine’s ‘Power of One’ Series, and spoken to the UN about his work. In 2016 Kaguri received an honarory PhD in Humanities from Shenandoah University recognizing his work with Nyaka. Kaguri divides his time between Uganda and Michigan where he lives with his wife Tabitha, their two sons and two twin girls.
—Article composed by Andrew Richardson, Program Assistant, June 2010