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 .
Vice President, Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions
Siarhei Antusevich is a 2010 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program. After finishing HRAP, Siarhei returned to Belarus to continue his work at the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BCDTU) and Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BITU) which is one of the largest independent self-governing trade unions in Belarus with an estimated 7000 members. Siarhei’s work at BITU focuses on raising awareness on violations of union rights in Belarus. Presently, he is the Vice President of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. In this role, Siarhei educates trade unions on their rights and represents their interests at the national government level. Since 2012, Siarhei has been a member of the Council of Improvement of Legislation in Labor Issues at the Ministry of Labor and Social Justice. Siarhei takes active part in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, where he was elected as member of the Steering Committee for 2016-2017.
The Human Rights Advocates Program at Columbia University is a capacity-building program based in New York City. HRAP provides proven human rights defenders with the skills and knowledge to carry out their human rights work in their home countries. In addition to expanding the human rights knowledge base of Advocates through graduate coursework and rigorous skills-building classes and trainings, HRAP facilitates networking opportunities for Advocates. Each year, HRAP organizes a week-long networking trip to Washington DC for Advocates to meet with NGOs and foundations in their areas of expertise. When asked about how HRAP has helped him with his current work, Siarhei writes, “The networking opportunities have strengthened my networks. The information that I’ve received from these contacts continues to serve as a resource to me.” During his time in Washington, DC, Siarhei met with numerous organizations such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations/Solidarity Center, International Labor Rights Forum, and the National Democratic Institute.
Siarhei remains in touch with his fellow HRAP 2010 classmates through LinkedIn, Facebook, and occasional conversations through Skype. When reflecting on his experience at HRAP, Siarhei concludes, “As a result of my participation in HRAP, my understanding of human rights issues and advocacy has changed entirely. I am proud to be a member of the HRAP family.”
—Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, June 2013; Updated by Chiora Taktakishvili, Fulbright Exchange Visitor, June 2019
CEO, Hope Development Initiative
Dr. Agnes Atim Apea is the founder and CEO of the Hope Development Initiative (HDI), an organization dedicated to empowering rural women in Uganda to become financially independent. An entrepreneur herself with over 20 years of experience working with development agencies, Apea strives every day to instill that same drive that motivated her to found HDI in the farmers that she works with.
It was this passion to work toward the economic rights of women that led her to apply to HRAP in 2010. Apea writes: “HRAP built my leadership and advocacy skills” and gave her the opportunity to make crucial connections with other organizations. In fact, she was able to secure funding from UN Women after meeting representatives during her time with HRAP. Not only did Apea establish important points of contact, but she also made lasting friendships with her fellow advocate class, with which she is “constantly in contact.”
For her tireless devotion to HDI’s cause, Apea was honored with the Presidential Golden Jubilee Award on International Women’s Day in 2016. Today, she continues to work as passionately as ever with nearly 11,000 farmers in Uganda, helping them to maximize crop yield and profits.
—Article written April 2017
Resource Mobilization and Communications Officer, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Ghana)
Susan Aryeetey is a graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program in 2010 from Ghana. After HRAP, Aryeetey continued working as the Resource Mobilization Manager at the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Ghana (FIDA-Ghana). In addition to her work in Ghana, Aryeetey is completing her Masters in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford via distance learning.
She writes that HRAP provided her with new ideas to improve FIDA-Ghana’s advocacy campaigns. Inspired by an oral history workshop offered by HRAP, she integrated recordings of women living with HIV and AIDs speaking about their challenges in owning property and obtaining their inheritance in her organization’s campaigns. Due to the innovative nature of this project, it was awarded funding.
Throughout the four-month program, Advocates participate in skills-building workshops and trainings to strengthen their skillsets as advocates and help them build stronger organizations in their home countries. These workshops address a wide range of topics such as fundraising, campaign strategy, advocacy tools, media relations, stress management and research and documentation. While at HRAP, Aryeetey sharpened her fundraising skills through a six-session workshop on fundraising taught by Erik Detiger, the founder of Philantropia. Detiger worked with Aryeetey to improve FIDA-Ghana’s fundraising plans and grant proposals. As a result, FIDA-Ghana received a grant in the amount of 74,000. This grant was extended to sustain the organization’s project until 2014. She writes that the fundraising skills she gained from HRAP helped FIDA-Ghana benefit from a two-year award of 174,000 which will support the organization’s efforts to improve women’s access to legal services.
In addition to the fundraising workshops, Aryeetey noted the significant impact that the stress management training has had on her personal and professional well-being. She remarked that the training was a “life saver,” adding that “as Advocates we tend to think more of getting the job done, forgetting to take care of ourselves, and I was beginning to feel exhausted.” The stress management training taught her to take proactive measures to relieve her stress. It allowed her to work more efficiently and reduce her stress level in a challenging work environment.
Aryeetey remains in touch with her fellow HRAP participants, including Tandia Bakary, Agnes Atim, Glenda Muzenda and Colette Lespinasse.
—Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, April 2013
Executive Director, Groupe d’Appui aux Rapatries et aux Refugies
During the 1980s, Colette Lespinasse became an advocate as she learned about the plight of peasants and the urban poor in Haiti. She started attending meetings and activities to improve Haitian society. She quickly found an opportunity at the Catholic radio station, Radio Soleil. “I was inspired by the role of Radio Soleil to make changes. The information and education awareness programs it broadcast nationally made it the only radio [station in Haiti]to do this.” She later began to focus on migrant rights after discovering the discrimination against Haitians in the Dominican Republic. She says, “When the Dominican Republic expelled over 80,000 Haitians during the Aristide administration, I created my organization GARR because I wanted to improve relations and offer humanitarian assistance.” She has since opened up constructive dialogue between Haitians and Dominicans in the Dominican Republic. Lespinasse said, “I discovered I need to keep working not just with Haitians but with Dominicans as well, to advocate not only within Haiti but within the Dominican Republic too.” She concludes, “Human rights has given me a passion. Now, I can’t work somewhere without passion.”
South Africa, 2010
Independent Consultant, Gender Development and Human Rights
Glenda Muzenda has more than 15 years of experience working in the development sector with international and regional and national organizations on human rights, women’s rights, sexual and reproductive health rights, and gender equality. She has also been working, advocating and lobbying for the sexual, reproductive, and general health rights of marginalized communities. She developed technical knowledge on advocacy and policy while working with caregivers and the LGBTI population in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Muzenda writes that the networking opportunities were one of the greatest benefits of HRAP. They provided her with valuable information and connections that have shaped the course of her career. In 2017, she served as a member of the Inkanyiso Media Network on the board of directors for Women Act Now in South Africa. Muzenda currently works as an independent consultant in gender development and human rights.
—Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, March 2013
Program Coordinator, International Secretariat of FIAN International
Andrea Nuila received her master’s degree in public international law at the University of Utrecht (the Netherlands) in 2015. Since finishing her studies, she has continued her work towards promoting human rights in Honduras. Currently, Nuila is living in Heidelberg, Germany. She coordinates the gender and women’s rights work at the International Secretariat of FIAN International and is a member of the Justiciability team. Her work, which takes on a holistic approach against the root causes of hunger, centers on coordinating the rights of women and gender and assisting the justiciability work on the right to food and other associated rights. From 2015 until its formal adoption in 2018 by the UN General Assembly, she was closely involved in the negotiations for a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. She is an honorary member of CLADEM Honduras, which is a regional women’s rights organization, co-founder of LUCHEMOS, a Honduran feminist collective, and assists other national NGOs and grassroots organizations on legal issues associated with social and economic human rights.
In reflecting on her participation with HRAP, Nuila recalled the benefits of her collaboration with activists in NYC. While here, Nuila met with Emily May, Executive Director of Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to publicizing and ending street harassment through an online forum of documenting and sharing instances of harassment on smartphones. Nuila went on to start a Hollaback! in Honduras under the name Atrevete Tegus, and was part of a group that started the first Hollaback! in the Netherlands. She also met with the Center for Reproductive Rights which collaborated with her organization at the time on a report detailing the banning of the morning after pill in Honduras, which was presented before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
- Article composed by Caroline Doenmez, updated by Claire Kozik, Program Assistant, Summer 2018 and by Chiora Taktakishvili, Fulbright Exchange Visitor, June 2019
United States, 2010
Carl Wilkens Fellows, Genocide Intervention Network
Azra Smailkadic-Brkic, a 2010 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program, has continued her work on genocide education and prevention. A former Carl Wilkens fellow with the DC-based Genocide Intervention Network, she has since been working as a journalist in New York City, including a role as a correspondent for the magazine Novo Vrijeme from 2012-2013. Smailkadi-Brkic is proud of her role as the initiator and coordinator of the Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration in July 2011, which was held at Columbia University, Rutgers University, and the Turkish Cultural Center. She writes: “The project aimed to raise awareness about the worst case of genocide in Europe since World War II that took place in Srebrenica, the world’s first United Nations ‘safe area,’ as well as wider Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995. July 11, 2011 commemorated the 16th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in which more than 8,000 innocent Bosniak civilians were summarily executed and 30,000 were expelled from their homes. This anniversary raises awareness of the tragic suffering of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian people and honors and remembers those who died as a result of the policies of ethnic cleansing and aggression.” The Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration included several screenings of films that dealt with the topics of justice, war, and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The films included: “The Angel of Srebrenica” by Ado Hasanović, “Statement 710399” by Refik Hodžić and “Mother” by Elmir Jukić. Each screening also featured a display of the Srebrenica Memorial Quilt made by widows from Srebrenica, who are members of The Association Bosnian Family - BOSFAM, a non-governmental organization which aims to help war-affected women in Bosnia and Herzegovina cope with psycho-emotional traumas and poverty. In addition, there were two photography exhibits titled “The Shadows of Srebrenica” by Andy Spyra, and the “Mass Graves in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Smailkadi-Brkic reflects on the greatest benefits of HRAP as being “the people that I have met and knowledge that I have gained,” also noting the value of establishing firm connections during this time with several organizations. She also writes that HRAP: “Opened up my mind and helped me with crossing the bridge between theoretical knowledge, which I gained while attending the MA program in Human Rights at the University of Sarajevo-University of Bologna, and practice.” One of her favorite memories from the program is the project she participated in in the History & Reconciliation class. She writes: “I was part of a project (together with several other classmates, mainly from former Yugoslavia) where our task was to explore ‘The Role of Chetniks in the Second World War.’ I understood that until that point I only had folk knowledge about this topic. This class and this particular project helped me to approach this topic more academically and it was definitely an eye opening experience. This journey that I took with several other classmates in order to try to come to the shared narrative among different stakeholders is simple unforgettable.” -Article composed by Caroline Doenmez
Case Manager and Policy Advocate, African Services Committee
In reflecting on his participation in HRAP, Bakary Tandia writes, “Receiving the HRAP certificate from the Institute for the Study of Human Rights is a constant reminder that one must take more responsibility for human rights protection and demonstrate effective leadership in human rights promotion.”
Tandia co-founded The Abolition Institute, a human rights advocacy organization that focuses on slavery and human trafficking. Since its inception, the organization has developed strong working relationships and partnerships with organizations such as Rainbow Push Coalition and Anti-Slavery International, the oldest abolitionist organization in the world. With the support of U.S. Senator Richard J. Durbin, Tandia reports that The Abolition Institute has successfully advocated for $3 million in new funding to create and expand anti-slavery programs in Mauritania and neighboring countries.
Since leaving HRAP, Tandia has continued working as both the Case Manager and Policy Advocate at the African Services Committee, an NGO dedicated to improving the health and self-sufficiency of the African community in New York City and beyond. As Case Manager, he provides assistance to African immigrants in accessing health and legal services. As a Policy Advocate, he works to raise awareness of public health and human rights issues in the African community through participating in advocacy and lobbying activities at city, state, and federal levels. He also represents the African Services Committee at the United Nations. He was among the 13 immigrant’s rights advocates arrested in an act of civil disobedience during a rally in September 2017 organized by the New York Immigration Coalition in protest against the current U.S. administration’s efforts to end the DACA immigrant amnesty program.
In summarizing the impact of HRAP on his current work at the African Services Committee, Tandia writes, “HRAP has assisted my work in human rights in many ways. It significantly increased my level of confidence when drafting press releases, media advisory, and petitions. In addition, the program broadened and strengthened my network.”
In 2012, he was awarded a fellowship that allowed him to attend the International Human Rights Colloquium organized by Conectas Human Rights in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This conference provided him with the opportunity to meet with human rights scholars and advocates from the Global South. He shared his valuable experience at HRAP with the conference participants and strongly encouraged them to apply for the program.
In collaboration with the Justice Initiative Program at Open Society Institute, he attended a conference on transitional justice in 2011. The conference attendees had a productive meeting in Nouakchott, Mauritania, with the representative of United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights. Besides these conferences, he has attended numerous meetings with various national human rights organizations to learn more about their perspectives on the human rights conditions in their home countries. In 2011, he was featured on The White House Blog for his work in advocating for immigrant’s rights.
Tandia is a graduate of the Global Master’s Program at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. He holds bachelor degrees in International Criminal Justice and Criminology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the City University of New York, and the University of Abidjan ( Côte d'Ivoire).
Community and Government Liaison Officer, Winrock International
“I am more empowered to handle issues of good governance, human rights, and development head on,” states Evalyne Achan from Uganda, a 2009 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program. HRAP is a four-month training program for human rights advocates. Based on the campus of Columbia University in New York City and utilizing the many NGO and rights networks available throughout New York, participants follow graduate courses, take part in skills-building workshops, and attend networking meetings among other program activities to advance their advocacy careers. Since completing the program, Achan remarks, “I can now talk with confidence on the rights of human rights issues and know which stakeholders I can work with in order to have issues of human rights addressed.
While in HRAP, Achan joined her current organization, Winrock International, a nonprofit organization that empowers the disadvantaged, increases economic opportunity, and sustains natural resources. She had previously worked for CARE International and the Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development. At Winrock International, Achan is serving as the Community and Government Liaison Officer for the organization’s Northern Uganda Development of Enhanced Local Governance, Infrastructures, and Livelihoods (NUDEIL) Program. NUDEIL is a USAID Program that has been sub-contracted to Winrock International. In her position, Achan acts as advisor and facilitator for all programmatic aspects of NUDEIL. Her work is helping local communities and governments in northern Uganda to develop strong and transparent processes, build roads and schools, provide drinking water, and establish rural health and sanitation facilities. The result of Achan’s work provides employment, income, and a higher quality of life for communities in northern Uganda.
When asked about the greatest benefit of her participation in HRAP, Achan fondly recalls one of the opportunities that she had during an event sponsored at the United Nations. “My greatest benefit,” she says, “was that my self-esteem was highly lifted, networks broadened, and meeting with key personalities in the world, like when I met UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.”
Achan reports many wonderful accomplishments since her very recent participation in HRAP. She says, “I have been able to accomplish key things in my life, was able to raise funds for charity for Rural Development-Uganda, a community-based organization I co-founded to help in promoting and protecting the rights of the formerly abducted child mothers, widows, and women and at the same time improve their livelihoods.” Additionally, she explains how HRAP has advanced her personal work, saying, “Through the networks created while at HRAP, I have been able to sell more Paper Beads. The number stands at 2600 beads per month from 600-700 per month. It has helped me to broaden my understanding of human rights work and the roles of being human rights defenders.” Reflecting on her accomplishments and participation in HRAP, she concludes, “As much as the HRAP Program empowered me as an individual, the effect has trickled down to the communities in Northern Uganda.”
—Article composed by Andrew Richardson, Program Assistant, August 2010
Executive Director, Afghan Women Skills Development Center
Mary Akrami is a 2009 graduate of HRAP. Since 2018, she has been serving as the executive director of Afghan Women’s Network, an organization that engages in peacebuilding and conflict resolution programs and provides training and mentoring on mechanisms on women’s engagement in political and community-based peacebuilding. She is a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and the Selection Committee of Election Commission of Afghanistan.
Mary initiated the use of community-based peace shuras (councils) throughout Afghanistan to allow women to engage in conflict resolution at the local level. Mary says this served as a starting point for women’s inclusion in community-level decision-making.
Mary has been engaged in the fight for women’s rights since 2001. She is a founder and a former executive director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center (AWSDC), an organization focusing on the rights of women affected by violence. In this capacity, Mary established the first shelter for women at risk of violence in 2003 and contributed to the establishment of Bost Family Restaurant, the first restaurant in Afghanistan which provides jobs for female survivors of violence and contributes to women’s economic empowerment. Her activism to fight violence against women lead to the approval and implementation of the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women in Afghanistan in 2009.
Her work promoting women’s rights has been recognized at the global level on numerous occasions. In 2007, she was awarded the International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State, and in 2018, Mary won the N-Peace Award from the UNDP for her work promoting women’s rights. She has been a member of the South Asian Forum for Human Rights since 2013 and is a member of Frontline Defenders network in Afghanistan.
- Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, June 2013, updated by Claire Kozik, Program Assistant, Summer 2018, and by Chiora Taktakishvili, Fulbright Exchange Visitor, July 2019
Researcher/Project Manager - The Global Justice Program, HAAS Institute for a Fair & Inclusive Society at UC-Berkeley
Recent 2009 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program, Elsadig Elsheikh from Sudan, remarks, “HRAP has increased my understanding to the larger framework of human rights work and advocacy, and the applicability of human rights framework to several aspects of our modern global and local social problems.” Upon entering HRAP, Elsheikh was acting as Research Associate for the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. The Institute pursues among its goals to deepen the understanding of the causes and consequences of racial and ethnic disparity with a focus on racially and ethnically marginalized population.
HRAP allows admitted advocates to expand their knowledge and capabilities using international human rights mechanisms and applying international law frameworks to their career and work objectives. The Program administers workshops and seminars in public speaking, leadership, and networking, among others, which impress upon many of its participants a renewed sense of commitment and fulfillment to their personal causes. For Elsheikh, “To be able to articulate the immediate needs to employ the human rights framework to tackle global challenges and to believe in the collective actions to challenge injustices and structures in so many different fronts” has been a personal accomplishment since his participation.
After leaving HRAP, Elsheikh went on to serve as a Resident Director at the Office of International Affairs/Honors Scholars Program in Bolivia. He has recently returned to his post at the Kirwan Institute as a Senior Research Associate to lead the institute’s Global Justice Program. His responsibilities include supporting the Institute’s short and long-term research projects, maintaining awareness of emerging research methods and investigative frameworks, and effectively representing the Institute’s directors with the Institute’s partners and collaborators at local, national, and international organizations.
Another feature of HRAP is the opportunity it provides for its participants to experience life in New York City, meet with other advocates and practitioners, and possibly make new lifelong friends. When asked what he felt was the greatest benefit of participating in HRAP, Elsheikh says, “I think beside the great exposure to Columbia University, it was the fact to be able to know and to interact with the staff of ISHR and my colleagues in HRAP 2009 who added tremendous touch of humanity to my knowledge and enable me to reach new horizons.”
—Article composed by Andrew Richardson, Program Assistant, July 2010
April 2017 update: Elsheikh is currently Researcher/Project Manager of the Global Justice Program at the HAAS Institute for a Fair & Inclusive Society at UC-Berkeley.
Updated by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2017.
Executive Director, Association Unity of Judges of Georgia
Recent graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program in 2009, Nazibrola Janezashvili from Georgia, states, “The main result of my participation in HRAP is increased awareness about human rights issues and activities of the USA-based human rights organizations.” When Janezashvili entered HRAP, she was serving as Project Director for Article 42 of the Constitution, an NGO in Georgia composed of professional lawyers who provide pro bono legal assistance and representation in courts and other state agencies to the victims of human rights abuses.
HRAP provides its participants with the opportunities to take part in training seminars and workshops for proposal writing, leadership building, and public speaking at Columbia University. According to Janezashvili, “After the program, I realized that my presentation skills are absolutely different and improved. The experience received during the program helps me to exercise my work more successfully and qualified.”
Upon her return to Georgia after HRAP, Janezashvili received higher professional recognition because of the education she had acquired. She was appointed from her position as Project Director of Article 42 of the Constitution to the post of Chairperson of the Board. Currently in this position, she supervises and manages the organization’s operations, leads board activities, and submits reports and presentations to the General Assembly regarding the organization’s activities. She has also begun her pursuit of a PhD program in Law at Caucasus School of Law in Georgia and is completing her dissertation on the subject of Women’s Rights.
Another important feature of HRAP is the opportunity it provides for participants to meet with other human rights advocates from around the world and share their different and unique perspectives and experiences. For Janezashvili, “The greatest benefit of my participation in HRAP is new relations with human rights defenders. I shared their experience in human rights which will help me in future activities.” The HRAP participants are also provided housing and accommodations during their four months’ stay in New York and Washington, D.C. for them to get to know one another and be comfortable during their stay. Janezashvili recalls from her experience, “I consider that the environment during the program helped me fast in adapting with program participants and friendship relations,” and “I am really happy that now I have friends around the world.”
—Article composed by Andrew Richardson, Program Assistant, June 2010
January 2014 update: Janezashvili is currently the Executive Director of the Association Unity of Judges of Georgia.
February 2017 Update: Janezashvili has been a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at Washington College of Law, American University since April 2016. She hopes to focus on judicial issues within human rights and specifically those associated with hate crimes against LGBT+ people.
Director of International Hepatitis/HIV Policy and Advocacy, Treatment Action Group
Before participating in the Human Rights Advocates Program in 2009, Kaplan had worked for nearly ten years in Bangkok as the co-founder and Policy and Development Director at the Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group (TTAG). When asked about her experience at HRAP, Kaplan writes, “I gained practical knowledge and skills that built upon my human rights work in Thailand and globally, and I made contacts with extraordinary advocates who continue to inspire and motivate me to continue my work.”
The Human Rights Advocates Program is a four-month program at Columbia University that provides participants with the resources to learn and grow as human rights advocates. Advocates are required to audit at least two graduate level courses at Columbia University. Kaplan writes, “The opportunity to engage and study with prestigious human rights and law professors expanded my knowledgebase and shaped my perspective on human rights.” In addition to graduate coursework in law and human rights, HRAP supplemented her human rights work in Thailand through advocacy trainings, valuable workshops and networking opportunities. In reflecting on her time at HRAP, she concludes, “I gained insights, connections, new ideas and exposure to extraordinary people and useful resources through the Human Rights Advocates program. “
Since her participation in HRAP, Kaplan started a new chapter in her career. She is the Director of International Hepatitis/HIV Policy and Advocacy at the Treatment Action Group. In this role, she develops and implements rights-based advocacy campaigns to promote access to Hepatitis C treatment in low and middle-income countries. Through her work, she influences government leaders and policymakers as well as funding agencies to promote and ensure the right to health and life for marginalized populations such as people living with HIV/AIDS.
She has co-authored numerous publications in collaboration with the University of British Columbia Urban Health Research Institute on barriers to healthcare access and problems of police abuse for people who inject drugs in Thailand. She has given numerous presentations, including a plenary at the International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) in 2011. She was recently selected to serve on the Human Rights Reference Group for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria (GFATM).
She is based in New York City and volunteers her time as an advisor to the Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group. She remains in touch with many of her fellow advocates such as Mary Akrami, Nazibrola Janezashvili, Akinyi Ocholla, Florencia Rui and Anna Kirey.
November 2016 Update: Kaplan has worked on health and human rights issues in Asia since 1988. She spent 20 years working with grassroots HIV activists in Thailand on access to treatment for highly marginalized populations, namely people who use drugs, migrant sex workers, and people in prison. As the co-founder of Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group, Kaplan helped bring attention to the human rights of people who use drugs and supported the founding of Thai Drug Users’ Network, which received a groundbreaking grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria for peer-led harm reduction services in Thailand. Kaplan also worked at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and Treatment Action Group, where she helped mobilize a global movement for access to affordable hepatitis C virus treatment in low- and middle-income countries.nKaplan is a recipient of the 2009 John M. Lloyd Foundation HIV/AIDS Leadership Award, and the Health GAP Founders Award.
—Written by Karyn Kaplan
Chairlady, Minority Women in Action
Coming to the Human Rights Advocates Program in 2009 from Kenya as a volunteer with Minority Women in Action (MWA), Akinyi Ocholla says of her time in HRAP: “My participation in HRAP boosted my networks, my insights into human rights work, my knowledge of working with people, and increased my resolve to continue working for the LGBTI community in Kenya.” Ocholla began volunteering with Minority Women in Action in 2006 and in 2009 became the chair lady of the organization where her work focused on promoting the issues of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women in Kenya.
In 2011 Akinyi stepped down as chair lady of the MWA's Steering Committee and took on the role as director. Over the next two years, she managed a staff of four and demonstrated her acquired skills by spearheading an intense proposal writing exercise and expanding MWA’s annual strategic plan. She raised public awareness through conversations with members of the Kenyan public on sexuality and gender norms; discussing sexuality in Kiswahili on public radio; speaking with the police; and presenting research papers at the annual conference of Kenya Counselling and Psychological Association to the attention of professional psychologists and counselors. Together with members of Women Who Love Women in Kisumu, Akinyi spearheaded a research project which involved interviewing medical personnel about their views on sexuality and lesbian and bisexual health at public hospitals and clinics in Nairobi and Kisumu. The research resulted in a publication in an international journal. A second research project conducted in a joint effort with the staff of the National Museum of Kenya sought to investigate the ethnological and historical presence of LGBTI persons in traditional Kenyan communities. These publications have been shared widely with the LGBTI community in Kenya.
Akinyi furthermore encouraged and supported MWA members to further their personal growth through participation in HRAP and International LGBTI Association (ILGA) conference events.
The effects of Ocholla’s success have spread to her fellow staff. In 2011-2014, Ocholla and MWA were officially elected as representatives of the Women’s Secretariat of ILGA. This gave MWA a new international role as a networking agency for the international lesbian community. It was a role that placed MWA in the spotlight and offered many opportunities for MWA members to step up and contribute to international lobbying efforts. For instance, MWA supported the 2013 Pan African ILGA Conference held in Nairobi.
On top of her work at MWA, Akinyi also served as a principal research officer at the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, and Technology. Her duties included promoting, disseminating, and managing research activities and findings from various institutions as well as collecting information from ethnic communities in Kenya and educating citizens on their intellectual property rights. Ocholla also confirmed that her position at the Ministry benefitted from her participation in HRAP because of the recognition as a human rights advocate that HRAP bestowed.
In 2012 Ocholla stepped down from MWA leadership in the wake of an election of a new MWA steering committee. Ocholla earned a master’s degree in intersectional gender studies at Linköping University, Sweden in 2014. This, however, meant that she had to leave Kenya and relocate to Sweden where she currently resides. Since 2015, Akinyi specializes in new technologies and works as a java programmer, artificial intelligence and robotic process automation specialist.
- Article composed by Andrew Richardson, Program Assistant, July 2010; Updated by Chiora Taktakishvili, Fulbright Exchange Visitor, June 2019
Graduate Student, New School
Florencia Ruiz Mendoza, a 2009 HRAP graduate, is Director of Capacity Building for the Social Movements Historical Research Center, an NGO based in Mexico. Trained as a researcher, Ruiz Mendoza shares that her experience at HRAP has taught her how to manage an NGO and how to better understand and meet donor expectations of NGOs and their personnel. Reflecting on the benefits of the program, she states, “Thanks to the professional staff at ISHR, I was able to do a lot of networking in New York City and Washington and I realized how much I can [raise awareness of] our work both in Mexico and internationally.”
Ruiz Mendoza has expressed that the courses she chose to audit significantly contributed to her academic development. The connections she made through Columbia faculty paved the way for opportunities even after her completion of the program. Three months after her participation in HRAP, Ruiz Mendoza was awarded a scholarship from the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University to fund her participation in the Oral History Summer Institute Program. The program themed, “Oral History from the Ground Up: Space, Place and Memory,” focused on analyzing the meaning that space, place and memory have in the production of individual, social, cultural and political narratives.
Ruiz Mendoza shares that the greatest benefit of her participation in HRAP has been, “All the knowledge I [received, and continue to receive] and all the wonderful people I met since then.” To HRAP, she attributes an increased confidence regarding her future professional career and her increased support of her colleagues and the communities they serve. About HRAP’s contribution to her work while in the US, she states, “I had the great opportunity to speak out about the stories of people whose voices have been silenced by the Mexican government.”
Reflecting on her overall experience, she fondly notes, “I will never have enough words to express how grateful I am with HRAP and its staff, it has been so far one of the most important experiences in my life and I will treasure [that] for the rest of my life.”
Since returning to Mexico, Ruiz Mendoza has resumed her duties as a researcher and has been appointed Director of Capacity Building. She was recently invited by both Instituto Mora and Universidad Autonoma de Guerrero to speak on a panel of experts about human rights issues.
—Article composed by Tiffany Wheatland, Program Coordinator, July 2010
January 2014 update: Ruiz Mendoza is currently a graduate student at the New School in New York.