(New York) – Human Rights Watch has selected a Nigerian human rights advocate, Hauwa Ojeifo, as the recipient of its inaugural Marca Bristo Fellowship, an award created in memory of the pioneering disability rights icon, Human Rights Watch announced today. The fellowship honors emerging activists for their courageous leadership in disability rights.

Bristo, who passed away a year ago today at 66, played a pivotal role in the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act and successfully influenced other countries’ efforts on equality, inclusion and independent living for people with disabilities. She was a tireless partner and supporter of the Human Rights Watch Disability Rights program, serving as the founding chair of its Advisory Committee.

Hauwa Ojeifo (center) together with Human Rights Watch researcher Anietie Ewang (left), speaks before the Nigerian National Assembly on the draft mental health bill on February 17, 2020.

“Marca was a true human rights hero, a visionary thinker, a relentless advocate and a compassionate supporter for all of us in the disability rights movement,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “We created this fellowship to honor her legacy by empowering extraordinary disability rights activists around the world, like Hauwa.”

Human Rights Watch first met Ojeifo in 2018, when she helped the organization conduct research on the shackling of people with psychosocial disabilities in Nigeria. In February 2020, together with Human Rights Watch, Ojeifo testified before the Nigerian National Assembly on a  draft mental health bill. She was the first person in the country with a mental health condition to publicly urge lawmakers to ensure inclusion of people with psychosocial disabilities in creating human-rights-respecting mental health legislation.

In 2016, Ojeifo, founded the mental health initiative She Writes Woman to offer services to women with similar experiences after she had a mental health crisis and was unable to find community support. Ojeifo is a survivor of sexual violence and has been one of the few women in the region to publicly announce her psychosocial disability to the local and international forum.

The women-led initiative created one of Nigeria’s first privately operated 24-hour mental health helpline that provides emergency intervention over the phone. Her organization also created a women-only monthly mental health support group called A Safe Place, which reaches over 900  women and girls across Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan, and Kaduna.

 “This fellowship – and my partnership with Human Rights Watch – means so much for me, and it’s an incredible opportunity to highlight the intersection between the rights of people with mental health conditions and women’s rights,” said Hauwa Ojeifo. “Women with mental health conditions like myself have something to say and we are being heard. It’s empowering!”

Ojeifo, 28, was chosen among several candidates nominated by staff who have worked closely with Human Rights Watch. As part of the fellowship, Ojeifo will receive training on research, advocacy, communication and fundraising from Human Rights Watch colleagues over the course of the next year.

She will also participate with Human Rights Watch in a major advocacy meeting, such as the UN Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in New York, tentatively scheduled for December. And she will travel to Chicago to visit Access Living, a disability rights organization founded by Bristo, where she remained president until her retirement in 2019.

What a privilege to highlight the work of such an extraordinary woman, Hauwa,” said Daisy Feidt, executive vice president at Access Living. “Marca was deeply committed to empowering emerging disability rights advocates, especially women, who rise up to advocate for change in the face of so many obstacles. We are delighted to partner with Human Rights Watch in recognizing Hauwa’s achievements.”