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 .
Coordinator, Forensic Area Division, Centrde Análisis Forense y Ciencias Aplicadas
Maria Eugenia Carrera Chavez, a graduate of the 2013 Human Rights Advocates Program, returned to her position as the Coordinator of the Forensic Area Division at the Center for Forensic Analysis and Applied Sciences (CAFCA), where she works with Mayan indigenous communities in Guatemala to locate and identify the remains of those massacred during the 36-year-long civil war. According to a 1999 report, “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” authored by the Commission for Historical Clarification, approximately 83% of the 200,000 people killed during this time were Mayan. Many bodies are still being unearthed today, and Maria and her organization work to return them to their families and strive for healing, transitional justice mechanisms, and human rights in Guatemala.
One current project at CAFCA is an assessment of the “Kaqchikel Case,” that concerns the grave Human Rights violations that occurred in the central area of the country against the Mayan Kaqchikel population during the Internal Armed Conflict. The process seeks to spur a serious investigative process within the Office of the Ministerio Público, the Attorney General, to provide access to justice to all victims and survivors of the abuses committed by the National Army. She writes:“The quantity of victims in this case is reported to be around 2,000, which means that if the process is successful, a similar amount of families will have the ability to go to a trial and demand a sentence for the perpetrators of these acts, including forced disappearance, sexual violence against women, massacres, and forced displacement.”
Reflecting on the benefits of HRAP, she notes that it strengthened her capacities, gave her theoretical knowledge of topics such as transitional justice and genocide, taught her how to efficiently utilize media sources, and strengthened her ability to create networks. She remains in frequent contact with her colleagues from the program, writing: “I made great and wonderful friends in the HRAP 2013 and once in a while we have a collective email with life updates. I also have new contacts on Facebook from other HRAP classes and we follow each other’s activities, even if we don’t know each other personally.” She also notes: “In general I feel much more confident with working in English when my work demands it. HRAP necessitated that I be able to clearly communicate what my organization is doing in a concise way and effective way. This skill has been extremely helpful for me in continuing to create new networks and to represent my organizations in different spaces worldwide.”
-Article composed by Caroline Doenmez
Executive Director, United Women Banja Luka
When asked about her domestic violence work, 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 the HRAP program for her returning with 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."
Founder, Youth for Justice
Gelashvili originally set out to be a sociologist but reports, “I decided to work in human rights instead because I had an urge to go to the field, to hear the stories of people and to make change.” After her studies in England and the Netherlands, Gelashvili returned to Georgia shortly before the war with Russia broke out in 2008. Gelashvili says, “The war was the biggest incentive to change my profession and to begin working in human rights. There was rape, hostage taking, the destruction of houses, forcible displacement, and other violations. I witnessed the horror of this conflict with my own eyes, and it made me want to create change.”Gelashvili began working with Human Rights Priority and traveled around the country to document cases of war-related violence. Nino helped to present cases before national courts and also before the European Court of Human Rights. Gelashvili says, “We helped those affected by the war to see what options they had, which they weren’t aware of due to their deep shock. I felt that I was truly doing something to help in the aftermath of the conflict and it felt good. The strongest feeling that I have is my desire to help those in vulnerable situations. I realized that I want to keep stakeholders and the government awake and not give them room to do the wrong thing.”Gelashvili and two colleagues went on to found their own organization, Youth for Justice. The organization first began to work on issues around the access to health care for prisoners, an issue worsened by the high imprisonment rates following the conflict.Now the organization is working towards increased sustainability. Gelashvili says “When I get back I want to bring something with me from here, which is funding. One of the main priorities in coming here was to create connections to help raise funds to enable our organization to survive. This program helps immensely in this direction, there have been many opportunities to meet with donor representatives and to present our work and to get feedback.”Gelashvili reports that she also highly valued the skills-building workshops, especially the six-part workshop on research, documentation and writing, which was led by Diederik Lohman and Jane Buchanan of Human Rights Watch. Of her fellow HRAP participants, Gelashvili says “It has been good to have a chance to see the different approaches to prisoner rights and prison reform. I really enjoyed meeting and getting to know people. I know that our roads will cross someday. Our work is not only for our own countries, it has bigger outreach potential.”
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.
Program Manager, Cheshire Services Uganda
Mukaga realized the importance of human rights for individuals with disabilities when he was studying at Makerere University in Uganda in 1999. “When I was at campus, there was an affirmative action policy for students like me who had a disability. However, there was a challenge when it came to the allocation of dormitory rooms. The allocation of the good rooms was based on an individual’s active participation in sports and games held on campus. This clearly excluded the disabled from the good rooms. The rooms that were left for us were the worst rooms next to the university toilets. I mobilized other students with disabilities. We went to the dean of student affairs and lodged our complaint. He saw our side of the issue. We were then allowed to pick our own rooms after that day. This made me realize, ‘Oh, this means you need to come out and speak up.’ I never used to talk. I didn’t think my voice would do anything but this opened my eyes. After that day, I began to speak up against injustices for the disabled when I saw them around campus and beyond.”After university, Mukaga began to work for an organization that works on disability issues, eventually coming to his current work with Cheshire Services Uganda where he designs programs that address education, health and employment barriers for persons with disabilities.Upon returning to Uganda, Mukaga wants to apply the knowledge of human rights he has gained through the HRAP program and courses to his work at the local level, emphasizing the practicability and the implementation of these rights for Ugandans especially those living with disabilities. Mukaga says, “I want to combine our service delivery with the human rights principles I have learned here. Any future project I do will have human rights at its core.“These four months in HRAP have given me a lot of energy to face those who have tried to violate my rights in the past and to speak up for others whose rights have been violated. It is interesting that when laws become norms they are much more respected. What I want to see is the movement of the laws that Uganda has signed into norms that will be adhered to so they make a difference for those they were intended to benefit. I am incredibly thankful to HRAP for being on the side of disability rights and for giving me this opportunity.”
National Adviser, Conflict Early arning, Early Response, Peace and Development Network Trust (PeaceNet Kenya)
Before the 2007 elections in Kenya, Shalakha conducted interviews countrywide for a research firm.While out in the field in the weeks leading up to the elections, one of Shalakha’s colleagues asked him to interview a group of young people that had refused to speak with her. The youth informed him they would not speak with his colleague because she was a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group. Shalakha says, “It was then that I realized the extent to which the youth were being poisoned by the ethnic divisions being promoted during that election season. I realized I needed to speak with youth to try to change their perspective to one of respecting those from different communities. ”Another incident confirmed his realization that he needed to affect positive change among the youth. He says, “After the election violence had broken out, a person was pulled from a matatu (mini-bus) and killed. He looked just like my brother – he wasn’t, but he could have been. He was some-one’s brother. I realized then that I needed to feel that I was making a difference. ” Shalakha began traveling out of Nairobi to speak with youth groups around the country. This led him to volunteer with PeaceNet Kenya, which later hired him to work on HIV/AIDS awareness and outreach in remote communities. His next assignment with PeaceNet Kenya involved collaborating with other organizations on UWIANO, the monitoring and response system that brought together peace actors to respond to reports of violence and hate speech during the 2013 elections. Reflecting on his time in the HRA program, Shalakha says: “It was an experience like none other. This gave me an enormous opportunity to network with different organizations that are doing different things or the same things in different ways. It has been quite helpful see-ing how they work. The fundraising workshop was an essential one for me. I also learned the importance within the human rights community of sharing one’s work—unless you share what you do, no one knows about it or can help. Back home, speaking about these things might be considered ‘blowing your own horn,’ but in HRAP I learned that it is so important to talk to each other and share our work. This has been one of the biggest things I learned.” Shalakha plans to continue his out-reach to communities about their rights under Kenya’s new Constitution and the need to hold the country’s leaders accountable. Shalakha shares, “The leaders we put in place through our ethnic sentiments and biases are now showing their true colors. This is seen through the controversial legislations being passed in Parliament for selfish reasons, and poor leadership at the county level. This will be a good opportunity to educate communities on good leadership and holding leaders accountable.”
Community Advocate Team Leader, medica mondiale Liberia
As a child growing up in a loving family in Liberia, Swen witnessed how other girls in her community were treated. She noticed that they had to take on a large share of the cooking and cleaning and were frequently subjected to beatings. She heard stories of girls being sexually abused by their family members. When she asked questions about the abuse of girls in her community, her father replied that it was none of her business.
As she grew, Swen observed that this injustice was faced by women and girls across her country. She decided to make this injustice her business. After the Liberian civil war, she joined the police force and worked in the juvenile protection division. Swen observed that while police stations had special units and procedures for working with juveniles, women who were reporting gender-based violence didn’t receive specialized treatment. Swen and others successfully lobbied for the creation of dedicated reporting areas for gender-based violence, with gender-sensitive procedures and specially-trained staff. Swen then asked herself, “If in this central city women are treated poorly, what about women in rural areas where the services are even worse?”
Over time, Swen began to feel that her ability to create change was limited due to the corruption within the police system. Swen shares, “I was limited when I investigated a case. Let’s say, for example, there was a case of a minister abusing his wife or sexually abusing a child, and it [was] brought to the police for investigation.
Before any progress could be made, you would see ‘invisible hands’ enter the investigation – a police director or other top brass would call me and tell me to forget about that case. So I was completely limited, I couldn’t do anything and was told ‘Duty before complaint.’ I had women coming to me looking for help, feeling empowered by seeing me behind the desk, my presence making them comfortable. Yet I knew that their cases wouldn’t be resolved. I couldn’t work in that type of environment. I needed to work somewhere I could make real change.” In 2006, Swen left the police force to join the organization medica mondiale Liberia where she continues to work today.
Reflecting on HRAP, Swen said she enjoyed the courses at Columbia University, especially a course on rural development that addressed topics of vital importance for Liberia’s future such as infrastructure, food production and sustainability issues. Swen was also very inspired by a visit to the Columbia Health Sexual Violence Response. She hopes to adapt this type of sexual violence response program to the school systems of Liberia, especially at the university level where she reports sexual exploitation by teachers is rampant.
Executive Director, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants-Nigeria
Sylvester Uhaa, a graduate of the 2013 Human Rights Advocates Program, was recently awarded the Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue his MA in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, UK.
Sylvester is the founder of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE-Nigeria), which he initiated as a chapter of International CURE in 2008.CURE-Nigeria advocates for the provision of opportunities for those in prison to change their lives; the use of alternatives, especially for juveniles and women; the respect for the rights and dignity of those in prison; the minimum use of pre-trial detention in accordance with legal instruments, as well as a moratorium on the construction of new prisons in Nigeria; the abolition of the death penalty and torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment of suspects, and extra-judicial killings. Also, CURE-Nigeria provides legal aid for detainees who are poor and cannot afford to pay for the services of a lawyer, and establishes educational programs in the prisons, among other things. Under Sylvester’s leadership CURE-Nigeria has developed from a state to a national organization.
Reflecting on recent accomplishments, Sylvester notes the release of eight detainees from prisons through legal aid provided by his organization. They also recently published their newsletter, “The Advocate,” online and in print. Additionally, he shipped a 40-foot container of books from the Minnesota-based organization Books for Africa, which he is distributing to prisons and school libraries across Nigeria. He is also in the midst of planning research on female detainees and prisoners and babies leaving in prison, as well as people incarcerated on debt-related issues. Other on-going projects include the establishment of libraries in prisons and public primary schools, legal aid for indigent detainees, campaigns against the use of torture, and the building of an ICT center in the Kaduna Juvenile Borstal Institution.
Sylvester observes the merits of the program on his work: “HRAP presented me with the biggest stage or platform to spring up since I began CURE-Nigeria in 2007 in terms of exposure to new funding opportunities, networks and people; it added to my confidence; gave me additional skills and sharpened already acquired skills.” Another benefit was his collaboration with Jaclyn Sawyer, a current graduate student in Social Work at Columbia University, who was awarded the Davis Project for Peace grant to go to Nigeria and work on his “Books Behind Bars” Project.
November 2016 update: Sylvester earned a master's degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford in 2015.
Updated by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2016.
Secretary General, Youth Action Nepal
Upreti is a passionate advocate for sexual and reproductive rights for the youth of Nepal and for gender equality overall. Of her work, Upreti says “Since I was a child I have seen that in my country there is not the same level of respect for women as there is for men. I observed consistently that women were not at the same level and are put on a different track from early on in their lives. Seeing this gender inequality coupled with the caste system made me want to fight injustice in my country and to fight for equal rights and opportunities for all.”Seeing how deeply embedded stereotypes were being used to justify gender-based violence in her country, Upreti became interested in working with youth to combat these attitudes. As a core team member and the Secretary General of Youth-Action Nepal, Upreti focuses on coordinating coalition activists and facilitating training workshops focused on sexual reproductive rights and health. Upreti is currently also a youth representative on the Adolescent Reproductive Health Subcommittee organized by the government of Nepal. A lawyer by training, Upreti is also a member of the National Alliance of Women Human Rights Defenders.In terms of her motivation, Upreti says, “I really believe that we all are the same, we are all human beings and we should all be treated equally. Yet each day we hear of murder and rape cases. Even if I am struggling or thinking about a different type of work, seeing these types of injustices continue is what inspires me to keep going. I feel inside me that as a youth, I have a duty to my country to use my voice for the thousands who cannot. I need to speak up for them also.” Upreti says she greatly enjoyed the course on Gender Justice, in addition to the workshop on human rights research, writing and documentation with Human Rights Watch.
Sierra Leone, 2012
Executive Director, AdvocAid
Program Officer, Citizens Coalition for Constitutional Culture
Executive Director, Genocide Survivors Support Network
Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Rakai AIDS Information Network (RAIN)
Program Officer, Center for Health, Human Rights and Development