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Reebok Sports Apparel Company Awards Four Human Rights Prizes - 2004-03-09

Four young human rights activists have been awarded $50,000 each for their work in Brazil, Nigeria, the United States and Afghanistan. The three women and one man were given the annual human rights prizes by U.S. sports apparel company Reebok, Monday, to mark International Women's Day.

The United Nations International Women's Day this year highlighted women's contributions to the fight against HIV and AIDS. Reebok chose the day to recognize, among its annual human rights award winners, a Nigerian activist who focuses on women living with the disease.

Now 25 years old, Yinka Jegede-Ekpe was diagnosed with HIV six years ago when she was a nursing student. She went public with her HIV status and has tried to raise AIDS awareness in Nigeria, where more than than four million people, about five percent of the population, are known to be infected.

Ms. Jegede-Ekpe says winning the $50,000 prize has made her feel recognized for the first time. "Now it is here. HIV is a social trend and it is for all of us to join hands together and do something about it," he said. "People are dying. I believe that we can make a difference in our own small way to make sure that we curb this spread, and improve women's health in general and also care for our children because children are equally dying."

Ms. Jegede-Ekpe says she plans to use the funds to continue her outreach programs for women, who she says are particularly vulnerable. She says in addition to drugs and knowledge, women, the traditional caretakers, need financial independence to help combat AIDS. Like Ms. Jegede-Ekpe, who has worked with UNICEF, Nader Nadery has collaborated with the United Nations to document human rights violations in Afghanistan. The only man to win the Reebok award this year, he says he is trying to expose women's rights violations in the name of tradition and culture. During the Taleban regime he was imprisoned after founding a magazine that promoted democratic values.

Brazilian human rights activist Joenia Batista de Carvalho has also brought her cause to the international arena. She grew up in poverty and became Brazil's first female attorney from an indigenous ethnic group. Ms. Batista de Carvalho is fighting to help Brazil's impoverished indigenous population achieve land rights along with access to health and education.

New York-based attorney Vanita Gupta received this year's prize for her campaign securing the release of 35 African Americans who were falsely accused and convicted of drug-related crimes in the town of Tulia in the southern state of Texas.

Ms. Gupta of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, an organization championing legal rights for African-Americans, received national media attention for the Tulia, Texas case, her first out of law school. She says she plans to use the $50,000 to investigate allegations of other suspicious drug-related convictions.

"I am going to hopefully fund some investigations with this, put it back in my organization and allow myself to even, potentially, get some investigators on board to look at the other Tulias that appear to be out there and to figure out where the challenges can be brought and what systemic reforms can be achieved," he said.

The annual Reebok Human Rights Prize was established in 1988 to bring international attention to the work of young human rights activists.