Between 1989 and 2021, a total of 346 human rights advocates from 95 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 .
Programs Director, Sexual Minorities Uganda
Pepe Julian Onziema is the Programs Director for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an organization focused on monitoring, coordinating, and advocating for the rights of the LGBTI community in Uganda through influencing legislation, challenging discriminatory laws, and spreading awareness on the status of human rights for individuals identifying as LGBTI in Uganda. As the Programs Director, Onziema is responsible for the coordination and administration of all ongoing programs, including the development, organization, and implementation of fundraising campaigns, mobilization initiatives, and advocacy work. Prior to serving as Programs Director, Onziema was the organization’s co-director and office administrator.
As a longtime advocate for LGBTI rights and as an out transgender man, Onziema is personally connected with the population he is currently serving. He was the recipient of the 2012 Global Citizen Award from the Clinton Global Initiative and received a GLAAD award in 2015.
Onziema holds a diploma in shipping and freight from Kampala College of Business Studies and the Advanced Certificate of Education from Makerere College School.
Support Assistant, Office of the Co-Executive Directors, UHAI EASHRI, UHAI EASHRI
Legal/Program Officer, Uganda Network on Law, Ethic and HIV/AIDS (UGANET)
Betty is a Legal/Program Officer at Uganda Network on Law, Ethic and HIV/AIDS, an NGO committed to the development and strengthening of policies and ethical responses to HIV/AIDS in Uganda. She has headed the Kampala office since March 2011. She earned a bachelor’s of legal laws from Uganda Christian University in June 2008 and a postgraduate diploma in legal practice from the Law Development Center in 2009. An enrolled Advocate of the High Court of Uganda and other subordinate Courts, she is a member of the Uganda Law Society and the East African Law Society.
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,” Orazulike 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.” Orazulike 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.”
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
Executive Director, Economic and Social Rights Centre (Hakijamii)
ISHR is sorry to report that Odindo Opiata died in 2014. You can read the memorial by ESCR-net here.
Odindo Opiata, a 2002 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program from Kenya assesses the importance of HRAP on his work by saying, “Apart from providing me with a wide range of opportunity to create broad networks with other organizations working on human rights, the training helped me to sharpen my understanding of fundraising, advocacy, and economic, social, and cultural rights.” Prior to his participation in HRAP, Opiata was a long-time activist promoting the right to housing for the urban poor in his home country. Like many HRAP participants, he underwent the necessary training HRAP is able to provide for using international mechanisms and networks to advance his work.
Aside from advocacy training, HRAP also encourages participants to follow graduate coursework at Columbia University in subjects related to their interests. Opiata states that for him, “The course on economic, social, and cultural rights that was taught by Roger Normandy in particular has been key in enabling me to create the organization that I currently head and also in providing me with an opportunity to be one of the founding members of the International Network on Economic and Social Rights.” Additionally, participants will meet with and get to know personally other advocates in their field through meetings, lectures, and other HRAP events. Opiata says of his time in HRAP, “the participation enabled me to meet and know the work of individuals from diverse parts of the world that I would obviously not have been able to do had I not gotten the opportunity. Above all, it provided a unique opportunity to learn the wonderful and creative methods used by these groups.”
Since completing HRAP, Opiata has participated in other trainings on economic, social, and cultural rights as well as national and international conferences. In 2005, he founded the Economic and Social Rights Centre (Hakijamii) in Kenya where he continues to work as Executive Director. Because of Opiata’s prestige and expertise, his organization is now well-recognized as the leading institution in Kenya on matters of economic, social, and cultural rights. Opiata, as head of the organization, is regularly called upon to provide assistance to other organizations as well as government agencies in Kenya concerning the placement of economic, social, and cultural rights on the national agenda. His organization was also recognized as the nominee to coordinate and facilitate the hosting of the General Assembly and Strategy Meeting of the International Network on Economic and Social Rights in Nairobi in 2008, the first meeting of its kind to be held in Africa. In addition, HRAP has recognized Opiata’s organization through one of the many possible opportunities it is able to offer for its alumni. In the winter of 2010, HRAP organized a competition for alumni to apply for a Fellow from the Advocacy Project to work with their organizations. Hakijamii was chosen to receive a Fellow in the summer of 2010.
Since 2010, Opiata has spearheaded strategic interest litigation on housing rights that led to a precedent-setting ruling by the Constitutional Court in favor of thousands of slum dwellers. The project demonstrated the power of collaboration as a number of leading international human rights organizations were able to mobilize their economic and social technical expertise by being enjoined as amici curiae. As part of the implementation of the Constitution, Opiata was appointed in the Task Force that is drafting the national legislation on community land and evictions and resettlement.
Last year, Opiata was part of a small team that helped the Special Rapportour on the right to adequate housing in developing on a report on security of tenure. This report has been submitted to the Human Rights Council.
When considering overall the skills, education, opportunities, and training provided by HRAP, Opiata says, “My participation benefitted tremendously from the content and perspectives on advocacy, fundraising strategies, and the unique value that economic, social, and cultural rights can bring to the human rights discourse. All of these have proved to be extremely useful in my new work as Executive Director of my organization.”
—Article composed by Andrew Richardson, Program Assistant, July 2010
Executive Director, Gender Rights Project
Christie Olejemeh, a 2001 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program from Nigeria, says that “HRAP is invaluable. It gives you exposure to the worldview of human rights issues, collaboration with other human rights defenders around the world, and the knowledge that many people are going through various challenges in their home countries.” When Olejemeh participated in HRAP, she joined other human rights advocates from around the world in trainings, meetings, and workshops to develop their knowledge and understanding of human rights. The intimate setting of the program allows the advocates to share their own experiences and activities with each other to learn how others in their respective fields are working to advance human rights.
Olejemeh came to HRAP with her experience as Executive Director of the Gender Rights Project, a women’s human rights organization in Nigeria. A master’s degree holder in biochemistry, Olejemeh wanted to reach and touch women whose human rights are being violated. She would carry out awareness campaigns on women’s human rights as well as organize seminars and counseling sessions for victims of domestic violence. While participating in HRAP, she succeeded to secure funding from RAINBOW through the help of a student at Columbia University to provide economic empowerment for widows in three states in Nigeria. HRAP participants regularly find that the networks they make during their time in New York City and Washington, D.C. provide valuable resources for their work and organizations in their home countries. Olejemeh also secured further human rights training from the Soros Foundation while in HRAP.
Upon leaving HRAP, Olejemeh says, “My advocacy skills were greatly enhanced.” She became one of the women that helped to draft the law against the trafficking of women that has been enacted into law in Nigeria and which prosecutes traffickers. She also concludes that “my experience has continued to enhance my work on health issues, especially on HIV/AIDS.” She has completed a bachelor’s degree in Nursing as well as earned numerous certificates on HIV/AIDS.
Currently, Olejemeh is serving as Public Health Analyst at Care Housing and Support Services Bureau, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, & Tuberculosis Administration (HAHSTA) with the District of Columbia Department of Health. In this position, her duties are to provide technical assistance to service providers in the development of HIV services, negotiate and manage service agreement with community and non-profit organizations, and provide administrative and analytical methods of the public health framework to service organizations. Olejemeh is also a Clinical Nurse of Oncology at the medical surgical unit of Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore where she provides quality and competent nursing care to patients undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery as well as uses her nursing skills to promote the quality of life of her patients.
- Article composed by Andrew Richardson, Program Assistant, June 2010
January 2014 update: Olejemeh is currently the Executive Director of the Gender Rights Project.
Deputy Program Director, Human Rights Watch
“The program opened a few doors for me… it came at the right time in my career.”
Looking back on his experience in HRAP in 1997, Tunde Olugboji recalls making good use of the networking opportunities offered through the program. During HRAP, Olugboji was working with the Constitutional Rights Project, an NGO devoted to ensuring that legislation relating to the rights of citizens in Nigeria complies with international human rights standards. His participation in the program connected him with donors that would become important to his future work.
In fact, it was during this experience that he met his “wonderful mentor, Paul Martin,” who at the time served as executive director at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Martin’s course was also one of the few that Olugboji had the opportunity to audit, including a Law School lecture by Michael Posner and a seminar with the highly regarded father of human rights law, Louis Henkin. Attending these courses provided Olugboji with a new set of skills that aided him both immediately after the program and throughout his career.
Olugboji went on to complete further training programs in Denmark, empowering him to co-establish Nigeria’s first free expression group: Centre for Free Speech.Olugboji ’s unyielding passion for human rights advocacy led him to continue taking on larger projects, and today he serves as Deputy Program Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), a multinational NGO. He currently oversees several programs including the HRW arm in Africa–which is HRW’s largest program–Health and Human Rights, Disability Rights, and Business and Human Rights. His aim to create a new sub-program focusing on environmental human rights. When Olugboji is not devoting his time to advocating for international rights, he shares his valuable insights from years of experience as an adjunct professor at Hunter College in New York.
Written by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2016.
Program Coordinator of the Marriage Enrichment Program, Cambodian Association of America
In the words of Chanthol Oung, a 1995 graduate of the Human Rights Advocates Program, the greatest benefits of HRAP included “the knowledge on human rights tools to support me in advocating for human rights, learning many practical programs/initiatives from the visits, fundraising skill, and power of networking.” HRAP impresses these skills on participants during a four month stay in New York City with a short visit to Washington, D.C. Many advocates who take part in the program find that they have adopted a whole new set of professional qualifications.
Oung returned to her home country, Cambodia, after participating in HRAP and became Executive Director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, which she founded. She led the organization for ten years, and the Center now has more than a hundred full-time staff and thousands of community volunteers who provide legal services, counseling, skills training, and community organizing as well as rescue victims of trafficking and provide loans and scholarships to girls from landless families. When asked about the assistance HRAP may have provided to her to complete her work, Oung says, “I always work for the promotion of human rights by using what I learned (International Human Rights Instruments) from Columbia to guide my direct service, to raise awareness for public attitude change toward the respect of human dignity and fundamental rights, and to challenge policy and legal reform for equality between men and women and non-violence.”
The quality and strength of Oung as a Human Rights Advocate also shined forth in other areas during her time at the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center. She was elected Chairwoman of the NGOs CEDAW Committee, composed of 67 NGOs. In this role, she spearheaded programs to lobby governments to pass laws on domestic violence as well as advocated for many other governmental policies and programs to advance women and children. This role required her to regularly sit with the Board of Directors of many prominent legal, human rights, adhoc-Committees, and donor agencies.
The achievements Oung has made since her participation in HRAP have been recognized from a wide array of prestigious national and international organizations. She received the award for International Women of Courage from the State Department of the United States, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership from the Philippine President, the Japanese Parliament Award for Human Rights, and was nominated for the 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize.
When reflecting on her experience in HRAP and its effect on her current work, Oung concludes, “HRAP has been very instrumental to my human rights work at anywhere I live and work.” Today, Oung is living in the United States and pursuing a PhD in Public Policy and Administration, having completed a Master’s Degree in Law in Hong Kong in 2003 with a specialization in International Human Rights Law as well as having completed a MBA in Cambodia. She is also currently working as Program Coordinator of the Marriage Enrichment Program for the Cambodian Association of America where her duties include supervising multi-cultural staff, doing case management, developing training curriculum, increasing public awareness of the program, and reporting to both the Executive Director and grantor, the United States federal government.
January 2014 update: Oung is currently working towards a PhD.