Between 1989 and 2023, more than 350 advocates from nearly 100 countries have attended the program. HRAP participants have ranged from early-career advocates who cut their teeth in very urgent human rights situations to mid-career advocates who have founded organizations. HRAP alumni have served as UN special rapporteurs, in the ministries of their governments, and at leading human rights organizations around the globe. They have been recognized with honors including the Rafto Prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, the highest acknowledgment from the international human rights community.
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 .
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."
Capacity Building Officer, International Committee of the Red Cross (Georgian delegation)
Nino Gelashvili is a capacity building officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross Georgia delegation. She attended the 2013 Human Rights Advocates Program.
Nino 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, Nino 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 the sphere of human rights. There were cases of 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 motivated me to bring tangible change for those effected.”
Nino 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 & the European Court of Human Rights. Nino 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.”
Nino and two colleagues went on to establish their own organization, Youth for Justice. The organization first began to work on issues around the access to health care for prisoners.
Nino says of her HRAP experience: “When I got back to Georgia, I was eager 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 function efficiently and effectively. This program helped immensely in this direction - there have been many opportunities to meet with donor representatives, to present our work, and to start collaboration.
“The program had an immense impact on my professional development in the sphere of human rights. It has equipped me with those skills that are necessary for unbiased, efficient, and proactive advocacy campaigning and for providing assistance to vulnerable groups. My intellectual horizon was enlarged via interesting reflections over various human rights issues with my fellow colleagues as well as through discussions held during workshops and trainings with leading human rights organizations. HRAP helped me in developing out-of-box approaches towards different thematic issues.”
Nino reports that she also highly valued the skill-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.”
Nino has since joined the civil service within the Government of Georgia, first as the Head of Analysis, Strategic Planning and Coordination Division at the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Aid of Georgia (2013-2014). She later served as a program manager at the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation of Georgia where she worked on a joint project implemented with the help of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2014-2016).
Nino continued working on refugee problems while serving as a team leader at the Consortium Legal Aid Georgia, an umbrella organization uniting four Georgian non-governmental organizations under the framework of Norwegian Refugee Council, where she led information, counselling and legal assistance program in 2017-2018. She is now a capacity building officer with the International Committee of the Red Cross (Georgian delegation).
- Article updated by Chiora Taktakishvili, Fulbright Exchange Visitor, June 2019
Founder, Vilole Images Productions
Musola Cathrine 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 it as a platform to promote the arts and disability rights. The cause itself is quite personal for Kaseketi. When she was 18 months old, a medical mistake damaged her left leg, leaving her unable to walk without difficulty for the rest of her life. 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 instructors whose workshop Kaseketi attended while at Columbia University, Melissa Warnke, became her mentor. 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 Leitner Center 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.”
Kaseketi is as motivated as ever to continue paving the way for change for people with disabilities. As of the summer of 2018, she completed the feature Smoke and produced four short films, Long Wait for Justice, Lwito-Light, Tuso-Help and Music Activity, which will be used in awareness campaigns. In 2016 she hosted the first Zambian Conference on Gender-Based Violence and Disability after doing community screenings and workshops in six 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.
—Article by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2016
—Updated by Claire Kozik, Program Assistant, Summer 2018
Executive Director and Founder, Prisoners Future Foundation
Program Manager, Cheshire Services Uganda
ISHR was sorry to learn of the passing of Richard Mukaga in January 2020.
The following profile was compiled after Richard completed HRAP in 2013.
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.
Coordination Officer on Conflict Early Warning-Early Response, Middle Belt (Nigeria), Center for Humanitarian Dialogue
Before the 2007 elections in Kenya, Absolom conducted interviews countrywide for a research firm. While out in the field in the weeks leading up to the elections, one of Absolom’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. Absolom 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 someone’s brother. I realized then that I needed to feel that I was making a difference.”
Absolom 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 HRAP, Absolom 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 seeing 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.”
Absolom continues his outreach to communities about their rights under Kenya’s new constitution and the need to hold the country’s leaders accountable. He says, “The leaders we put in place through our ethnic sentiments and biases are now showing their true colors. This is seen through the controversial laws passed in Parliament for selfish reasons, and poor leadership in the country, hence the need to educate communities on good leadership and holding leaders accountable.”
Absolom is currently engaged in several inter - communal mediation processes in the Middle Belt and North East regions in Nigeria, working with the farmer/herder communities involved in violent conflicts.
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.
ISHR regrets to report that Angeline Swen passed away after a long illness.
Executive Director, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants-Nigeria
Sylvester Uhaa 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, alternative sentencing, especially for juveniles and women, respect for the rights and dignity of those in prison, the minimum use of pre-trial detention, a moratorium on the construction of new prisons in Nigeria, and the abolition of the death penalty and other cruel and inhuman treatment of suspects. CURE-Nigeria also provides legal aid for detainees who cannot afford to pay for the services of a lawyer and establishes educational programs in the prisons. Under Uhaa’s leadership CURE-Nigeria has developed from a state to a national organization.
CURE-Nigeria has coordinated the release of over 180 detainees from prisons through legal aid. The organization also publishes a newsletter “The Advocate.” Uhaa has also completed research on female detainees and prisoners and on individuals 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, the construction of an information and technology center in the Kaduna Juvenile Borstal Institution, and a campaign for the domestication of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act of 2015.
Uhaa writes: “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.” As a member of HRAP, Uhaa was able to collaborate with Jaclyn Sawyer, a graduate of the Columbia School of Social Work, who was awarded the Davis Project for Peace grant to travel to Nigeria to contribute to his “Books Behind Bars” Project.
Uhaa earned a master's degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford in 2015, and has been offered admission for the PhD in Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading, UK.
—Updated by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2016
Director of Programs, Youth Action Nepal
Ms. Rupa Upreti is a lawyer and women rights activist in Nepal since 2005. She co-founded the Forum for National Building (FNB) Nepal where she is also providing pro-bono legal services on gender-based violence issues. Rupa has a LLM in Human Rights and Gender Justice and a MA in Political Science with varied international trainings and fellowship experiences in the area of human rights, development leadership and insider mediation. Rupa served (July 2016-July 2020) as a Central Committee Member of the National Youth Council (NYC) of Nepal, an autonomous government body under the MOYS. She also currently serves as Director of Programs of Youth Action Nepal (YOAC). Previously, Rupa worked with the Attorney General's (AG) Office of Nepal as a trainee lawyer working on cases at the Supreme Court of Nepal and as a research team member on the research conducted by the AG Office. She has engaged in the youth movement of Nepal through YOAC and Association of Youth Organizations Nepal (AYON) in various capabilities.
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
Co-founder and Director, Most Mira