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 .
Founder, Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities
I am from a country that has been characterized by a history of violence, human rights violations and genocide. Growing up in such a country, I personally experienced and witnessed a lot of human rights abuses. These experiences made me want to contribute to human rights advocacy and peace building, hoping to diminish and/or prevent human rights violations and violent conflict from happening again.
What I loved most about HRAP are the workshops and networking meetings that I attended. Attending these workshops with the other Advocates helped me understand human rights issues with a broader view. For example, hearing from my fellow Advocates and visiting organizations that support LGBT and indigenous peoples’ rights inspired me and helped me start thinking about how I can expand my work to include these groups. Also visiting potential funding organizations helped me learn that human rights and peace building work is not just one organization’s work--there can always be a way of partnering and complementing each other.
Through the HRAP workshops I learned a lot of skills and new ideas from both my colleagues and trainers. I have been in this work for the last 10 years, and I have always been giving myself to others and ignoring my own well-being. Through the Stress, Trauma and Resilience in Human Rights Work workshop, I was again reminded of the importance of taking care of myself before I take care of others. Once I get back home, I am going to develop a regular routine that will help me make my work less stressful. I visited many organizations, and I met with many important people who might be potential partners to work with in the future. I am going to try to keep the connections going. I plan to use the skills I learned from both the trainings and classes to improve my work. For example, I’m going to use Google Calendar [which HRAP uses to organize the schedules of participants] to organize my daily work. I plan to teach it to my co-workers and other friends who do not know about it because I think it’s a very important tool. The fundraising skills I learned will help me write clear proposals based on what interests the donor. Before, I didn't know that it’s very important to know what the interests of the donor are before writing a proposal. I also learned the importance of doing research, writing, and reporting about issues before you start doing anything, so as I think of expanding my work to other groups, I’m going to do a lot of research to know exactly what the problem is, and what are the solutions and actions that should be taken. I am not going to keep all these new skills to myself. As soon as I get back home, I will start sharing all the skills with my co-workers and other organizations that do similar work as well because I believe that there should be no competition in human rights and peace building work. We should collaborate and support each other.
Bizimana was the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial Fund Advocate in the 2014 HRAP.
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.
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.
Head of Department of Further Education, Institute of Learning Processes/University of Greenland
Coming from an indigenous society and growing up in my grandparents’ and parents’ homes, equality was always an issue. I grew up with my grandmother who is white Danish, and my grandfather, a Greenlander. I would sit in the kitchen and they would talk about equality. My parents were part of the first anti-colonialism movement for more cultural rights and language rights in Greenland. I grew up in a home where I did not see that there were any differences between whites, Greenlanders, or anyone.
When I became older and went to the public school, I learned that there was a big difference between those who knew the colonial language and the colonial ways of learning and thus has the chance of becoming something in the country, and those who couldn’t, who would have no future. During high school, I experienced very strong stratification between the Greenlandic and Danish people. In order to become successful, I really had to be like the white people, the Danish people. I tried everything to be like the white people, learning the language and culture, and even earning a degree in a foreign country, but it was always another identity than my own. So when I finished my education and came home, and my father told me, “Now you have your white man’s European degree, now you have to learn to be human again, if you want to work for your people.”
I came to a point in my life where I learned that I had to decolonize myself and find my identity. As part of that process, the passion for my people’s rights grew more and more, especially in relation to the educational system. We have people working with indigenous peoples’ rights in Greenland. However, the right and access to education is something that’s not really being worked on. I began to give different workshops and speeches in communities around the coast, mostly to people who have gone through cultural assimilation. Eight years ago, I was hired to be part of educational reform, training teachers in a process of school reform that is more culturally appropriate. Eventually, I got the chance to get into indigenous women’s rights work, and I was nominated to be part of the Global Leadership School of FIMI.
Hearing about the Human Rights Advocates Program was like a dream come true for me. My favorite part of the program was the combination between theory and practice. The three-minute presentations about our work [given during group meetings attended by all 10 participants] were hard for me as I’m used to putting everything in a much larger context. These are the things we need to learn here, and it’s something I would have never gotten anywhere else. After HRAP, I will go home with much more courage. I now have the academic background and practical skills so I feel very confident that I will this in my work going forward in Greenland.
Director, Human Rights Information Center
My human rights work started when I volunteered with the organization GENDERDOC-M in Moldova. I then joined Amnesty International to see what was going on there. Unfortunately, there was a conflict at Amnesty International [at that time] due to the homophobic views [of] some members [who] decided that, “If they come, we leave.” It was a good thing that only those that stand for ALL human rights remained at Amnesty in Moldova.
I decided not to stop at LGBT rights. Obviously, you can’t say there’s only one problem in society. When you tell people about gender equality and LGBT rights, they say, “There are problems bigger than that. Why don’t you tackle them?” I say, “We do. We work on all of them. You can work on them, too, if you want!” It’s still hard to work on LGBT rights being a gay or lesbian person. You’ll be tagged as someone who is defending your own interests and pushing your “gay agenda,” whatever that is.
In 2011, I joined the Non-Discrimination Coalition as it and other organizations were proposing a new law on anti-discrimination. At that time, everything that was named anti-discrimination was labeled “gay.” Unfortunately, the law got that label, too. The Non-Discrimination Coalition became very visible as it responded to LGBT opponents. The coalition got the reputation of being a “first source.” The Ministry of Justice decided to rename it “the Law on Ensuring Equality.” The good thing about the entire episode is that the entire society discussed this law. Now every gay person in Moldova knows that this law is going to protect them.
2011 was a very fruitful year for me personally. I did an alternative report for the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It was my first report ever. A human rights adviser for the UN in Moldova encouraged and helped me to do this work. I presented it to Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I was very happy that the outcomes included the recommendations from my report. Of course when I went back with the report and recommendations, Moldova did not just endorse them fully. That’s when I understood I have to push a little—put a little pressure—to have the full effect.
Since [my experience with the Coalition] was quite overwhelming. I decided to do something less reactive and more proactive. I joined a UNDP program that supported decentralization in Moldova. As a human rights adviser, I encouraged the inclusion of a human-rights based approach at the local level. Projects needed to be conducted in a wide, participatory, and inclusive manner at the local level. It was a very challenging process. It’s not finished. We can expect to see the results in three to five years. That should not be disappointing but rather should set you to a reserve mode. Things do change, if you’re patient enough to see the change and not burn out, as happens to most of activists.
After UNDP, I found a really terrific opportunity as Director of the Human Rights Information Center (Moldova). My work is divided between representation (going to meetings, sitting for interviews) and accounting (sign this, sign that, go to the bank). It was challenging as well. While I thought (as Director) that I should be helping people, that’s not what I’ve been doing. I now understood an organization cannot help people without the work I am doing.
While in HRAP, I liked the course “Human Rights and Development Policies” the best in terms of the knowledge that I gained and the discussions with Professor Rainer Braun. The course that nourished my soul was “Narrative, Health and Social Justice” with Dr. Sayantani DasGupta. As homework, we watched movies and read books, including art books, which touch upon social issues. The combination of the professor presenting the whole skeleton of the course—you should read this, and you should discuss that—with the inputs of the students was very enriching as an experience.
When I return to Moldova, I want to [incorporate some of HRAP into] the Academy for Human Rights: sessions on social justice, the collection of narrative stories, and how to work with volunteers.
South Sudan, 2014
Taskforce for Engagement of Women, Institute for Inclusive Security
Human rights have always been a part of my life. My father passed away when I was only two. My mother moved us to a refugee camp in Northern Uganda. She was my role model. She took care of us, she made sure we had food to eat, we went to school. She’s never been to school—she doesn’t even know how to write her name—but she was so passionate about sending us to school. She was also very active in community mobilization, especially in the local women’s organization. Every week, she would meet other women in the refugee camp to discuss issues affecting them. They used to think of activities where they can generate income to support their family. I learned a lot from her.
When I reached secondary school, I got a scholarship and was named a “Girl Child Ambassador.” I got involved with an organization called Health of Adolescent Refugee Program. I used to go with the project staff from one refugee camp to the next to talk to girls and their mothers about the importance of staying in school. I did that throughout high school.
I like everything about HRAP. The classes, networking, mentoring and workshops have been amazing. There’s nothing I don’t like. It’s important for me to transfer what I learned in HRAP to every single work that I do in the future, whether it be to an international organization, a community-based organization or my informal work. What I learned here really is valuable. It has added a lot of width and depth to my understanding. The transitional justice course at Columbia Law School has given me a deep understanding of what it means to prosecute, give amnesties, set up a truth commission, forgive, reconcile, and repatriate. Thanks to the knowledge I gained from my gender mainstreaming class, I am able to look at all the tools and mechanism for transitional justice from a gender lens. Thanks to Issues in Rural Development and Human Rights and Development Policy, I now understand what it means to have a rights-based approach to development and a people-centered kind of intervention. I also look forward to integrating oral history and historical dialogue to conflict-transformation programming as I found the tools from the Politics of History and Reconciliation class to be very useful.
United States, 2014
Managing Director, Dekane Consulting
When I was around 8 years old, we had a neighbor who was beating his wife. The lady would come to our house seeking help, and my dad would mediate. I saw all this happen. One night, the lady came out, and the husband asked her to the leave the house and go back to her father’s house. She had nothing. I was so mad, I cannot forget that, and I’m 42 today. It was really clear to me that women in Africa needed help. Growing up, I would talk about it with my father--he’s very open and he raised us that way. We were able to discuss issues in society like domestic violence. Little by little, he pushed us to do what we wanted to do. For me, it was very clear: I wanted to be a businesswoman, but at the same time, I wanted to use any money that I made to help people. My grandmother would say, “Oh, she has a huge heart. All she does is spread her wealth around.” When I was in my twenties, I began to use those resources to empower women who were not in the same situation. I would give them some money to start a business, I would teach them budgeting the way I understood it at the time: when you spend something, you want to make a profit so you don’t lose money. If you buy something for one dollar, make sure you sell it for three or four dollars. This is something I wanted to do ever since I was little, it was inside of me. I did not plan to do it because my plan was to be a businesswoman and make money, I wanted to empower people. And that’s how I got to this work. After the Human Rights Advocates Program ends, I am hoping to look more at working at the foundations level. I’m hoping to be able to provide grants for marginalized populations.
What I have enjoyed the most about the Human Rights Advocates Program was the fact that I met all these Advocates from outside the US who are doing extraordinary work, and despite being from different locations, we are able to relate to each other on the work that we do. It doesn’t matter if you are in the US, Greenland, Rwanda, or South Sudan. We have the same issues. This is priceless—I don’t think we could get this anywhere else. I grew from this experience. Another favorite aspect is the capacity-building aspect of the program. The fund-raising session was a wonderful experience, because the facilitator came with simple ways of doing fundraising, and we learned that a funder is more impressed by a few pages of information that are clear and understandable over 50 pages that are not.
Human Rights and Peace Desk Officer, Lawyer's League for Liberty
Fourteen years ago, I was a regular college student until I attended a one-week youth summit on human rights conducted by Amnesty International Philippines. At that event, I learned about various human rights issues and had the opportunity to be with victims of human rights violations. The firsthand stories told by the victims impacted me the most. I told myself that I would not wait until I or someone around me became a victim before I act and speak out for human rights. Since then, I have been a human rights advocate. While it can sometimes be disheartening to see the continued impunity and the endless struggles for justice, these are also the very same reasons why I continue to fight for human rights.
My favorite aspect of HRAP has been attending the different workshops that capacitate us to become more effective advocates and to have greater impact in our human rights work. It has been such a great opportunity to hear new ideas, presented in a simple and practicable manner that can be easily adapted and applied to the human rights situations in our home countries. The workshops—especially the one on Research, Writing and Documentation with Diederik Lohman and Jane Buchanan at Human Rights Watch, Jo Becker of HRW on campaign advocacy, Bukeni Waruzi of WITNESS on video advocacy, Erik Detiger on fundraising, and TR Lansner on media presentation—equipped us with the necessary tools needed to strategically improve our work. Another important workshop was the stress management workshop with Sheila Platt. The kind of work we deal with is truly challenging and oftentimes stressful. Frequently, advocates neglect to deal with their own situations and struggles. It was thus very helpful to have this session to learn ways to adequately cope and in the process become better advocates. Finally, the thing I loved most about HRAP are both the formal and informal conversations we have with our fellow advocates during and after workshops where we not only learn from each other, but at the same time develop a deeper sense of camaraderie and warm friendship.
HRAP has provided me with lessons that I can transfer not only within my own organization, but within the human rights community in my country. Specifically, I plan to include in our strategic planning the various aspects of advocacy I’ve learned from the program, which will include the revisiting of our advocacy methods and strategies to make them more efficient and effective, as well as intensifying our fundraising efforts wherein the networking activities we did will truly be helpful. I also plan to replicate the different workshops conducted in HRAP to help capacitate my fellow human rights defenders in the Philippines. It has been a great privilege to be included in HRAP. I plan to maximize every opportunity I can to apply and further develop the skills and lessons I learned here, and share them with others as well.
Director, China Against the Death Penalty, Beijing Daoheng Law Firm
Liang Xiaojun is a 2014 graduate of the HRAP. He is the director of China Against the Death Penalty and runs the Beijing Daoheng Law firm where he also acts as a human rights lawyer defending human rights activists.
He says, “China has become the world’s second-biggest economy and the Chinese Communist Party had made a law to limit the foreign NGO activities in China. Our work to defend human rights is very dangerous and it is normal for us to do it without any support.” HRAP was an occasion for Liang Xiaojun to expand his knowledge of human rights and meet other human rights advocates. “Due to the difference of culture and language and the Chinese Communist Party’s strict control over society, we have no more space to engage in human rights advocacy. I had the pleasure and was lucky to participate in HRAP in 2014 which gave me the opportunity to meet with the admirable professors and excellent human rights advocates from other countries. They opened my field of vision and inspired the courage to resist threats and oppression.”
Participation in HRAP was crucial for advancing English language skills. “I appreciate HRAP giving me the chance to study English. I am particularly thankful to Ms. Stephanie Grepo [the Director of Capacity Building at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights] who encouraged me to keep studying English. Now I can communicate with journalists and writers in English about the human rights crackdown in China.”
“Attending human rights classes at the Columbia University and traveling to Washington DC were the most memorable parts of the program,” concludes Liang Xiaojun. Despite barriers, Lian Xiaojun tries to keep in touch with other advocates through social media.
- Article composed by Chiora Taktakishvili, Fulbright Exchange Visitor, July 2019
South Sudan, 2013
Executive Director, South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy
In addition to maintaining his role as Executive Director of the South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy (SSHURSA), 2013 HRAP alum Biel Boutros Biel recently received his Master of Laws Degree (LLM) from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He wrote his thesis on Transitional Justice, a concentration which stemmed directly from his studies with Professor Graeme Simpson at Columbia Law during his participation in HRAP. He writes that Mr. Simpson’s course on Transitional Justice “has changed my outlook for good. It has now turned into one of my subjects of expertise.”
Biel founded SSHURSA with his colleagues at the Makerere Law Development Centre (LDC), Kampala, Uganda in 2007. They began operating out of South Sudan in 2009. The organization works to ‘monitor, document and publish human rights status in South Sudan and to train general public on importance of human rights, fundamental freedoms of an individual, rule of law, transitional justice and democracy. All meant to creating an informed, responsible, justice and good governance oriented nation.” Their target beneficiaries include IDPS and refugees, women’s groups, youth, traditional authorities, and persons with disabilities.
Reflecting on his participation in HRAP, Biel notes that the program helped him to gain skills in research, advocacy strategies and dealing with the media, as well as important methods for stress management. He also values staying in touch with his friends from the program. Although Biel has faced daunting challenges in his advocacy work, he remains steadfastly committed to his organization and its mandate: “Though I am now in exile in East Africa after the current South Sudan government destroyed my home and sent me into exile, still I have my heart in human rights. We set up a SSHURSA office in East Africa and now conducting community dialogues on Transitional Justice, constitution, rule of law and human rights among the South Sudanese refugees.”
-Article composed by Caroline Doenmez
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.”
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
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.