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 .
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.”
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.
- Article updated by Chiora Taktakishvili, Fulbright Exchange Visitor, June 2019
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 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
—Updated by Claire Kozik, Program Assistant, Summer 2018
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
Co-founder and Director, Most Mira
Program Coordinator, Saathi
Palestinian Authority, 2012
Women Department Program Manager , Wi’am: The Palestinian Transformation Center
Lucy Talgieh has been advocating for human rights in Palestine since 2007. Specifically, she has been instrumental in creating awareness around issues such as gender-based violence and, more broadly, women’s rights. When Talgieh joined HRAP, she was working with the Wi’am: The Palestinian Transformation Center, a grassroots organization committed to establishing a culture of acceptance and justice in Palestine. She writes, “HRAP assisted me in many ways.” Not only did she learn more about international human rights issues and enhance her leadership abilities, but she also broadened her network. During a program visit to Washington D.C., Talgieh made a lasting connection with the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) that has allowed her to receive grants for programming and participate in ICAN’s yearly forum.
In addition to her work with Wi’am, Lucy is involved with a number of different coalitions both regionally and nationally. She recently helped organize a workshop series inspired by UNSCR 1325, a resolution highlighting the impact of warfare on women’s rights. Because of her tireless efforts, Talgieh was honored by the International Commission for Human Rights in Palestine during International Women’s Day in 2016. Additionally, she is a council member of the Bethlehem Municipality since May 2017.
—Article by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2016
National Director, Coalition of Political Parties Women
When Marayah Louisa Wychen-Munah Fyneah realized that her gender was precluding her from participating in the work of her political party, she decided to make changes. “We had a section for women in the party, but it was useless. We had no voice,” explains Wychen-Munah Fyneah. She gathered women from various political parties and founded the Coalition of Political Parties Women in Liberia in 2003. The main idea Wychen-Munah Fyneah had in mind was to educate women about their rightful roles in the political life of Liberia.
“It is extremely difficult for a woman to be a part of political life anywhere in the world,” explains Wychen-Munah Fyneah . “Today, in most countries, we have parallel systems of men and women being active in politics. It is unacceptable to have women isolated from men through different groups or committees in decision-making bodies.”
Wychen-Munah Fyneah highlights the challenges activists face due to short-term funding possibilities. “To change the hearts and minds of people, you need years,” she explains. “If we want to see different patterns in political life in Liberia, we must work continuously on improving the participation of women, not just in numbers but in quality as well.”
While in HRAP, Sheila Platt’s workshop on stress and trauma made her realize and understand the importance of mental health for activists. Wychen-Munah Fyneah appreciated the opportunity to learn about editorial writing and social media in human rights work. She sees social media as one of her priorities in the future. “Knowing that people from the other part of the world will be able to read about our work gives me additional strength to speak more loudly about my country’s concerns,” explains Wychen-Munah Fyneah. “Furthermore, learning about the progress that other countries have made reminds me about the work that we still have to do. I know it won’t be easy but I won’t give up,” she says.
By 2011 Advocate Lana Ackar of Bosnia
April 2017 Update: Wychen-Munah Fyneah is currently the National Coordinator of the Women Legislative Caucus of Liberia and serves as Secretary-General in the Liberian Women's National Political Forum. Additionally, she is the founder and President-Emeritus of the Coalition of Political Parties Women in Liberia.
Updated by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2017.
Gender Officer, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights
For Lana Ackar, a passion for pursing human rights has always been a large part of her life and within her professional career, she confidently pursued the study of human rights, specifically women’s rights. I feel that when you do human rights work, you care—you’re alive. Your senses become sharper, and you just feel differently about people. I have learned people are not as simple as you think they are. Everyone has layers of personality and different needs.”
Ackar serves as a board Member of the NGO Pravnik, which seeks to bring together professionals and scholars from Southeastern Europe and beyond to study issues related to the rule of law and transitional justice. She believes that the International Summer School Sarajevo project that Pravnik has been running since 2006 will contribute to the advancement of human rights in Southeastern Europe. In 2014, Ackar joined the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights based in Warsaw, Poland, where she currently works on advancing women's political participation and gender sensitivity of democratic institutions.