Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

Human Rights Advocacy Program: Panel Discussion

February 23, 2016

In the mainstream media, Africa is commonly framed in terms of conflict, famine and extreme poverty. Issues of human rights abuses are often painted with a broad brush, making sweeping generalities across the continent about the challenges African countries face. At a recent event at the Institute of African Studies, the Human Rights Advocates from Africa, supported by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), were able to move beyond these generalizations and give Columbia students a rare glimpse of the realities of human rights advocacy on the ground in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

Louisa Essendi shared her experience working as a Program Officer for Capacity Building and Assistant Director of Minority Women in Action at the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK). Opening the conversation with her own personal narrative, she spoke frankly with the audience about the social stigma that comes with being LGBT in Kenya. The difficulties Louisa faced as a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality, difficulties both internal and external, drove her toward a life of working to make Kenya a better place for those facing similar circumstances. For Louisa, she saw the incredible work that was happening across the country in LGBT advocacy, but also recognized the challenges these groups faced working in isolation and at a small scale. GALCK has since emerged as a coalition for these organizations, working in three regions across Kenya. She emphasized the opportunities that this creates for the organizations on a local level, which now have access to resources and support from other groups, but also at a national level by engaging with other human rights advocacy organizations and bringing LGBT issues onto the national stage.

Benson Khemis Soro Lako, from South Sudan, is the Civic Engagement Officer in the Community Empowerment for Rehabilitation and Development (CEFoRD) organization. Benson described the situation of youth in South Sudan, a region that has been hampered by corrupt governance and tribal divisions that have erupted into conflict since the country’s independence. While the conflict is new, he pointed out that the tensions and divisions behind the conflict have long been simmering, and the government has not been able to create national unity in the young country.  For Benson, his challenge has been engaging youth in this environment to be a force for peace, and identifying and training youth leaders who can be advocates for social change. The strategy of CEFoRD is to employ traditional popular culture platforms to spread the message of peace to youth. Through song, dance, and theater, the organization can then facilitate dialogue and mobilize youth communities across tribal divisions. As an example, Benson described Theater of the Oppressed, which was brought to South Sudan by international organizations and expropriated and adapted to the local context.

Sylvain Waruzi is an advocate for the empowerment of women and children affected by armed conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Since 2010, he has been Director of Programs at IMPACT, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to develop and implement programs that create positive change by initiating effective grassroots actions in the areas of women’s rights. IMPACT also works to ensure accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations through justice mechanisms and peaceful public pressure. Sylvain described the difficulties, for him on a personal level as well as for the organization, in working with women and children who have survived sexual abuse and torture. He emphasized the need not just for rehabilitation of these individuals, but more systemic changes to protect against these abuses. This is why IMPACT focuses specifically on reinstating the rule of law and providing legal support for victims to bring the perpetrators to court. Sylvain pointed out that the regional context in the Kivu region makes this especially difficult, as porous borders allow perpetrators to take refuge in neighboring countries, and legal institutions are non-existent or highly corrupt. But as an advocate, he emphasized for the need for non-governmental organizations to push for legal reform and reconstruction to rectify these injustices.

Each of these advocates live in incredibly challenging environments, working despite social stigmatization or extreme political polarization. Yet the stories they shared focused on the progress they have made for individuals in their home countries, and the strategies and opportunities that have for catalyzing social change in their local communities. While in the Human Rights Advocates Program at Columbia for one semester, these advocates develop skills through workshops and trainings that give them the tools to build sustainable organizations. They also enroll in specialized courses that put their work into the global context of human rights advocacy and facilitate debate on alternative strategies and holistic approaches to change. The Program also provides a forum for networking that can support their organizations and their own professional ambitions, including a trip to Washington, DC to network with other global activists. At the end of the semester, upon completion of the program, advocates put their new knowledge into practice.

Contributed by Krista Jorstad, School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University