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Two African activists have been named winners of a new award by the group Human Rights Watch. The Alison Des Forges Defender Award for Extraordinary Activism celebrates people from around the world who have worked through hard times to defend human rights.

Daniel Bekele is an Ethiopian human rights lawyer who fought to encourage voter education during Ethiopia's 2005 elections. As a result, he spent two and a half years in prison on political charges, accused of trying to overthrow the Ethiopian government.
Now living in Britain with his family, he says he will continue his fight for human rights in his home country. He says education is key on a continent where democracy is still developing.

"Voter education is very important in Africa because one good development we have in Africa recently is that a number of African countries are engaged in what is at least now regular elections," said Daniel Bekele.

Since Bekele's  release from prison in 2008, the Ethiopian government has adopted a new law on nongovernmental organizations that makes the work of most human rights groups in Ethiopia illegal.

But he says the fight to protect human rights must go on.

"We are having it to travel a long way to ensure actual protection of these rights," he said. "Unfortunately there is a back-sliding since the political crisis in 2005."

He says the good news is that activism across Africa is growing and a brighter future may be on the horizon.

"Activism is on the rise in Africa as it is probably also evidenced by the fact that two of the four awards from Human Rights Watch this year go to Africa," said Bekele.

As Bekele points out, two of this year's four award winners are African. The second  African is Mathilde Muhindo from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She works to help victims of rape in eastern Congo, a region plagued by widespread and systematic use of sexual violence by government troops and armed groups.

Human Rights Watch spokesman Tom Porteous says her work has changed women's rights in the country.

"She led a coalition of local women's organizations in Congo to advocate for a new comprehensive law dealing with the problem of sexual violence," said Tom Porteous. "And in fact as a result of her dedication and her work, that advocacy campaign has been successful."

Porteous says because of the work of activists like Bekele and Muhindo even countries that he calls 'failed states' have vibrant civil societies.