Between 1989 and 2016, a total of 317 human rights advocates from 88 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 .
Democratic Republic Of Congo, 2011
Coordinator, Action Large des Femmes Advocates
Ngungua Gisèle Sangua says, “Anyone can be a human rights activist. It’s not necessary to be a judge or lawyer.” Gisele started her career in human rights as a volunteer at a women’s organization when she was 17. While later working as a journalist, her interest in human rights intensified. She recalls, “The injustice that I saw made me want to be a voice for the voiceless. I hoped to change the injustice.”
After completing law school, Gisèle attended a human rights training in Cameroon, an event that would define her future involvement in human rights. “During the conference,” she says, “it was suggested that women lawyers were needed to address the situation of women. So we decided to create a group of women lawyers.” She helped establish the association of women lawyers association known as Action Large des Femmes Avocates (ALFA), where she now serves as coordinator. The nine staff members of ALFA provide legal representation and advocacy for women affected by discrimination and sexual and domestic violence.
Gisèle also hopes to fight against the negative clichés and images associated with Africa. “Human rights,” she says, “means living simply together in diversity. It doesn’t mean imposing on others a certain way of life but rather enhancing an exchange of cultures and customs within international agreement.”
Project Director, Centre for Social Transformation and Human Development
Colins Imoh has worked in various youth based organizations and was involved in the setting up of the Africa Network of Young Peace Builders (ANYP). He was the Africa Desk Coordinator working at the International Secretariat of the UNOY in the Netherlands. The ANYP is a continental initiative that joins the efforts of young people in over 40 African countries for the purposes of building peace and actively collaborating in the search for the non-violent resolution of conflicts.
He was awarded the prestigious Winston Fellowship in 2003 to attend the Summer Peace Building Institute of the Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in the USA. Professionally, he holds an MA in Conflict Transformation from EMU, Virginia, USA and an MPhil from the University of Cape Town in Environmental Management.
He was the pioneer Partners for Peace Project Manager, a network whose mission is to build social capital around peacebuilding through amplifying the voices of positive actors, building a network of self-identified agents of peace, and leveraging that network through facilitation, small grants, and capacity building. This network includes stakeholders from civil society, community-based, organizations, nongovernmental organizations, private companies, donor organizations, and the general public committed to promoting peaceable livelihoods in the Niger Delta.
Earlier in his career, he was the Project Director of Centre for Human Development Social Transformation in Port Harcourt. He was responsible for planning and coordination of the Protect our Future Peace & Civic Education Project. Organizing training of stakeholders on social transformation as well as the host of a weekly Vision Nigeria Radio Programme on Democracy, Good Governance, Peace & Development. He was a member of the 2011 HRAP advocates at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights in Columbia University, New York, USA.
He is currently pursuing a doctorate in peace education with a minor in research and measurement. His long-term goal is to establish a center in the Niger Delta, which will be involved in training, research and advocacy in the areas of environmental and conflict management.
Program Manager, AIDS Alliance in Nigeria
“To ask me why I am doing human rights,” Abu Tunde Irunukhar says, “is to ask me why I am being human. Human rights is about being human.” Tunde came to understand human rights while working with the HIV/AIDS community in Nigeria, where persons living with HIV/AIDS are not only stigmatized and rejected from society, but are seen as less than human on account of their HIV status. He began challenging this view by mobilizing communities and raising awareness about HIV and by strengthening the capacity of persons living with and affected by HIV/AIDS to obtain their rights. “When you provide rights,” he explains, “you make people live life to the fullest.”
For Tunde, human rights advocacy started during a year of service during which he provided basic items to orphaned babies and prison inmates. He recalls, “Through reaching out to these communities, I was reaching out to humanity and bringing excitement and joy from just basic items.” Tunde involved himself in advocacy by joining AIDS Alliance in Nigeria in 2003. When some of the people he worked with died during treatment for the disease, the importance of human rights became even clearer for him. “Only people with an awareness of rights can assert themselves to procure treatments and come back to life in the community,” he says. Tunde has since used human rights to demand services and care and push for access to a comprehensive continuum of care, accountability and transparency in the utilization of HIV/AIDS funds; greater involvement of people living with HIV; and workplace policies for those infected by HIV/AIDS.
In his own life, meanwhile, human rights has offered him a whole new outlook to living. “I think holistically,” he says. “because human rights come in bunches—you can’t talk about one right without other rights.”
For Hasina Khan, the pursuit of human rights developed from personal experience. She was born into a family and community that valued religion and traditional conservatism. As the fourth daughter in a very traditionally conservative family, she explains, “I was the first woman educated and the first non-believer in compulsory marriage for women. The traditional family demands marriage for women and does not accept a non-heterosexual person.” In rejecting these norms, she has had to separate herself from her family and her community, forcing her to fend for herself in order to pursue a full education and a more free life.
Hasina found strength and support in the grassroots women’s rights movement more than 20 years ago, especially at the organization Awaaz-e-Niswaan (Voices of Women). “Through Awaaz, I met and saw lots of women with similar experiences and in similar situations as my own.” Since then, Hasina has been working with women who struggle with the traditional and religious norms that do not welcome them.
“People have the freedom to take a stand and say that this is my choice,” Hasina says. “If you are aware but silent this is problematic because the laws will not change.” While change has been slow, she readily speaks about the lessons her career in human rights has taught her. “It’s not magic that happens and makes change,” she says. “I expect not for today, but for tomorrow.” As a testament to her words, she explains that her nieces are talking openly to her and looking to her for guidance in their own challenges. Her community has also recognized the success she has achieved in her career. “They look to me now because of my awareness and successes. I continue my work for them and other women. I can’t jump in to say the traditional family and laws are not correct, but I can make the choice and help other women to make theirs.”
Grants Coordinator, Fondo de Acción Urgente de América Latina y el Caribe Hispanohablante
Though forced migration, rape and domestic violence are part of Colombia’s everyday life, Nadia Juliana Bazán Londoño maintains that “there is also hope and willingness to improve our situation.”
Nadia says that her mother’s example motivated her to work in human rights. “I learned about inequalities [when I was] very young,” she says, “[by] attending political meetings at the university where my mother was studying.” In high school, she joined a group of conscientious objectors to military conscription. Through this group she first facilitated non-violent workshops for young people with the goal of changing their mindsets from war and violence to dialogue and non-violent strategies. Nadia then discovered the world of women’s funds and found her niche in supporting the impactful work of grassroots women’s organizations by securing financial resources for women’s rights.
She admits that in spite of the many challenges she faces in her human rights career, including stress and sometimes fear, she remains “strengthened by hope—the hope for transforming inequalities, the hope for clean water, and the hope for access to education, among other basic human needs. If everyone realizes that everything can be shared, then fulfilling rights will allow us to grow and develop as a nation. I have the sense of the right path and that in collaborating with others, you know you’re not alone and can find strength.”
April 2017 Update: Nadia is now a part of Women For Peace (Mujeres por la Paz) where she has been working to protect the rights of those affected by armed conflict in Colombia. This past year, her efforts were instrumental to allowing peace talks to come to fruition, eventually resulting in a permanent signed agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla.
Updated by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2017.
Assistant Professor and Coordinator, Human Rights & Gender Justice Program
For Rita Mainaly, human rights and human responsibility are inseparable. “To be a good citizen,” she says, “you need to act for the community. My parents taught me that I can be a role model for my society.”
As a pro bono lawyer at the Center for Legal Research and Resource Development, an NGO that helps to address cases of violence against women, Rita is a firsthand witness to the beating, harassment, trafficking and violence against women that goes unreported in Nepal. In rural Nepal especially, where Rita is from, there are two forms of discrimination that affect women. The first, she explains, is gender-based. Women are discriminated against simply for being women. The second is the caste hierarchy of Nepal in which women are victimized for being of a certain caste. “Women are considered second-class citizens and have no access to education,” she says. “These facts have encouraged me to follow human rights. I know I should do something for the women of this country.”
Describing a mission for her country, she says that while human rights are indivisible, women’s rights in Nepal are invisible and need to be made visible. “The defective value system in Nepal is the root cause of discrimination against women,” she says, adding that there needs to be “zero tolerance” for discrimination and violence against women. The challenge of achieving this, however, is one that Rita knows she cannot overcome alone. “For human rights,” she says, “a single person cannot do anything. We must work together in order to win together.”
Program Assistant, Uganda Land Alliance
“Once you start human rights work,” says John Mwebe, “you will never stop. You will keep advocating for one issue after another.” John, who has run from shoot-outs and rallied in the face of threats from landowners violating the rights of others, can be championed as the symbol of his own statement. “Anyone can do human rights,” he says, “but you must be prepared to rise to the challenges knowing that much more is possible. Based on all I’ve had to contend with in this work, I keep the feeling that the rights of the common man over land can be upheld.”
John began learning about human rights during his studies at Makerere University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Development Studies. “The best way to give back to our society is to take what we learn and apply it,” he says. After graduation, he co-founded Luwero Youth Integrated Development Program, a community-based organization. Shortly thereafter, he joined an agriculture organization to advocate for food security and land rights. From there, he realized the importance of land rights and joined the Uganda Land Alliance. “Ultimately,” he concludes, “I’m fighting for the land rights of the poor and vulnerable women, men, and children. The right to land stands central to all other rights especially in an agrarian state that Uganda is—no right stands alone.”
John’s pursuit of human rights has also left an indelible mark on him. Aside from the danger in which he has found himself defending land rights, he explains, “There is an attachment developed while doing human rights work. When someone is evicted off land and has nothing left, you feel affected too.” John would like the Ugandan land tenure system to undergo a full overhaul to incorporate the rights of every Ugandan to equal access, ownership and use of land. Most importantly, he wants to see the government realize that land belongs to the people and that the opinion of the people should be sought first. Despite the magnitude of achieving such a vision, John is driven by faith in human rights to push forward its implementation. “Every morning,” he says, “I wake up, and I believe it will get better. I love my country, and I can’t give up.”
April 2017 Update: John is currently the Regional Program Coordinator in Africa for the International Accountability Project, a US based organization dedicated to creating global financial development policies that respect individual rights.
Senior Legal Advisor and Grants Manager, Refugee Law Project, Makerere University
Just before entering law school, Salima Namusobya discovered her calling. At the time, her cousin was turned away from an engineering job simply because she was a woman. “I felt she had been treated unfairly,” Salima explains. “She had gone through the full process and had the qualifications for the job but was turned down for not being a man. This story informed my decision to study human rights as one of my elective courses, and my undergraduate dissertation was particularly about discrimination of women in employment.”
After earning her law degree, she focused on the rights of forced migrants while working as a Research Assistant for a member of the Uganda Parliament representing one of the constituencies in Northern Uganda—a region that had been affected by armed conflict since 1986. “People don’t know there are standards out there,” she explains, “and that government has an obligation to protect, respect and fulfill rights, including socio-economic rights like food, housing, health and development.”
Of her human rights career, she says, “What I do directly impacts people. Clients come back to me and say, ‘Thank you.’ There is the sense of being useful.” Salima is currently the Senior Legal Advisor for Refugee Law Project and affirms that in her work of legal advocacy of human rights, she can cause an individual case to have an impact on thousands. She says, “I’m a more positive person now, having seen change happen. I have learned that promotion of human rights requires continuous advocacy. I think that human rights advocates should be more strategic, and make interventions that cause legal, policy and social changes that will impact many people, for example through public interest litigation.” As an example, she cites a current legal case in which she is involved where her organization is seeking an interpretation of Ugandan law to consider qualifying Rwandan refugees as citizens. “If this one case succeeds,” according to Salima, “it will rewrite the status of refugee rights throughout Uganda.”
“People should know that human rights advocacy is not something ‘out there,’ meant for a specific group of individuals,” she says. “It is something anybody can do—sign a petition, call the police, be aware. Each human being has a role to play. What is important is for everybody to ask themselves what role they can play. Given where I sit, I continue to ask myself, how else can I contribute? How can I make an impact?”
April 2017 Update: In addition to continuing to serve as the Executive Director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), Salima currently serves on the boards of several local and international NGOs. In 2015, Salima was honored for her efforts and became a laureate of the Vera Chirwa Award for Human Rights Advocacy in Africa.
Executive Director, International Centre for Advocacy on Rights to Health
After losing a corporate job when his boss learned of his sexuality, Ifeanyi Orazulike focused his career on the LGTBI movement in Nigeria. He says Gani Fawehinmi, a Nigerian human rights activist, was his inspiration. “I took his quote and hung it on my wall,” Ifeanyi explains. “I wanted to do like he did and stand up for what I believe and for other people who feel the same thing I feel.”
After only two months of joining the staff of the International Center for Advocacy on Rights (ICARH), he became the Executive Director due to the death of his predecessor. He says, “For me, this is the best job there is. I don’t get paid much, but I am happy. My pursuit of human rights has been a great challenge, but it has given me the strength to get where I am today as well as to encourage others.”
As he explains, ICARH’s growth and development have fostered other LGTBI organizations in Nigeria as well as community centers for men who have sex with men (MSM) and sexual minorities. “Before [my organization], people could not talk about their sexuality and come out,” he explains. “I couldn’t accept this, and I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Ifeanyi now runs the first and only MSM clinic in Nigeria. As he affirms proudly, “I want to achieve results. I want to expand the work I’m doing, especially the clinic so that people can have more health access.” He plans to use human rights documentation and litigation cases to provide sexual minorities with more access to services since Nigeria considers homosexuality illegal.
Although he was originally driven to the LGBTI movement in Nigeria by his own personal experience, he says that now, “the impact and lives I’ve touched through my work have ignited a passion in me. What I have succeeded to do for others in my own struggles motivates me to go further. By being focused, I have overcome many challenges. If I stay focused, I can overcome any challenge.”
Executive Member, Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights
Athili Anthony Sapriina is a member of the Naga, who live in the far northeast of India and in Myanmar’s northwestern division. In India, where he resides, Athili says he is easily recognized as Naga and is thereby racially abused. “India looks at us [the Naga] not as Indian, but as Chinese,” he explains, and he has struggled with his identity himself. “My relatives wanted me to join the civil service, but I felt there was no future with India,” he says. The home of the Naga people in northeast India has been the scene of a long internal struggle between India and the Naga, who have been seeking independence since the flight of the British from India after World War II. “India’s economic growth is attacking our existence,” Athili says. “While the guns have fallen silent [for now], rivers are being dammed and forests destroyed in the name of security.” Athili has also been acting to combat a psychological war against the Naga people. “Media is used to stifle the Naga movement,” he explains. Working as a journalist since 2003, he has also witnessed the influx of non-Naga elements in Naga youth networks on Facebook, intended to confuse the youth about their identity. “I want to expose this,” he announces, “but to do so is to risk my life.” Emboldened by the struggle of the Naga and discrimination he has faced, Athili has become an advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples. He has been serving with the NGO Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights since 1995, seeking to defend the rights of the Naga to live as a free people. Adhering to the UN Declaration on Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, which grants the right of self-determination “is one of the surest ways to peace,” he affirms. “This is what I want for the Naga.”
Human Rights Monitoring Officer, ACJPS
Naglaa Ahmed, a 2010 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program, has continued her work with the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) since completing HRAP. ACJPS is an organization whose mission is “dedicated to creating a Sudan committed to all human rights, the rule of law and peace, in which the rights and freedoms of the individual are honored and where all persons and groups are granted their rights to non-discrimination, equality and justice.” Naglaa is currently working on a report for ACJPS detailing recent practices of torture in Sudan, titled: “The Prevalence of Torture and No Way to Justice.” The report, which is still being finalized, will hopefully be out in August 2015. She has also recently worked as a consultant for Human Rights Watch, as well as continuing her work with REDRESS, which she began in 2010, through 2014.
In addition to these projects, she is proud of other initiatives she has launched since her return to Sudan in late 2010: “I was able to form a youth and students forum to advocate for law reform in Sudan, and also prepared and drafted with others a proposal for the prohibition of torture bill. In late 2010 and through 2011, I mobilized local NGOs and formed an initiative called The Returnee Support Initiative, aimed at providing support to returnees to southern Sudan. My motive was a sense of responsibility towards these returnees, who are struggling during these difficult economic times; for example, food prices have increased significantly, in addition to the government’s already harsh policy against South Sudanese people. The object of The Returnee Support Initiative is to provide direct support in terms of food, clothes, and blankets, in addition to medical and legal assistance.”
Naglaa notes that her time in HRAP enhanced her networking and communications skills and helped her develop new strategic approaches to tackling human rights issues. She also notes as a result of her time in the program, she was able to assist the REDRESS Trust, an organization which works to help victims of torture survivors obtain justice and reparations, in receiving funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) for their Project Criminal Law Reform in Sudan, while she was working for them as a local coordinator.
Naglaa emphasizes the value of connecting with other Advocates from around the world, writing: “I learned great deal from other Advocates’ experiences, which empowered me in many ways and motivated me to do more.” Her connections have helped in her in practical ways, as well; while planning a trip to Uganda in 2014, fellow 2010 Advocate Agnes Atim assisted her in obtaining her visa for her travels. She writes: “There are many great memories, though one of the greatest was forming an African Women group (members included Glenda, Agnes, Susan and myself). Our intention was to apply what we learned and to work on peace-building and women’s empowerment in South Sudan and other conflict areas, the dream to bring this to reality one day and hopefully to develop it in the near future.”
Article composed by Caroline Doenmez
Human Rights Program Coordinator, Youth with Physical Disability Development Forum
When James Aniyamuzaala became hard of hearing after an accident at the age of eight, it was not his first encounter facing the situation of persons with disabilities. His mother, Mary Aniyamuzaala, was a polio survivor and one of the founders of the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda.
As an orphan at the age of 12, he recognized that education was the only way for him to survive. However, James became frustrated with the stereotypes placed on him as a person with a disability. James made it his mission to prevent other persons with disabilities, particularly children and youth, from having the same challenges he had encountered. He says, “I seek to remove the institutional barriers that limit participation of persons with disabilities in development and community programs. I believe that the quality of life of a society can also be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.” James also credits his mother as a strong source of inspiration to him: “I felt my mother had left behind a mission to help women and children with disabilities through her organization and that I was responsible to take over to realize her dream of good and improved standard of living for persons with disabilities.”
Through student groups in high school, James began his work as an advocate for the disabled. He continues his work today through the numerous commitments he has made: human rights coordinator with Youth with Physical Disability Development Forum, president of the Uganda Federation of Hard of Hearing, board member of the International Federation of Hard of Hearing Young People, and member of Global Partnership for Disability and Development. He says, “Positive and progressive action both locally and globally motivates me to keep advocating for human rights for persons with disabilities.”
Secretary-Treasurer, Belarusian Independent Trade Union
Siarhei Antusevich is a 2010 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program from Belarus. 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). 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 government level. He also works with the Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BITU), which is one of the largest independent self-governing trade unions in Belarus with about 7000 members. Siarhei’s work at BITU focuses on raising awareness on violations of union rights in Belarus.
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
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, Agnes 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. Agnes 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 Agnes 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, Agnes 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, Susan 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, Susan 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, Susan sharpened her fundraising skills through a six-session workshop on fundraising taught by Erik Detiger, the founder of Philantropia. Erik worked with Susan 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, Susan 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.
Susan 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