Olivia Wells is the Director of Programs for Nadia’s Initiative. She designs project proposals for development initiatives in Iraq; manages project implementation and reporting to funders and governments; and works with legal partners to facilitate the process of ISIS’s legal accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, while simultaneously advocating for governments and international organizations to rebuild communities in crisis and help survivors of conflict-related sexual violence through this vital initiative.
Nadia Murad is the co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, and an ardent advocate for survivors of genocide and sexual violence. In line with this vision, Nadia’s Initiative is dedicated to rebuilding communities in crisis, and strives for a world free from genocide and sexual violence. Nadia Murad fervently asks world leaders to make “never again” a reality; not an empty promise.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in Human Rights? How did you make this dream become reality?
My life trajectory has been quite different from the average American. I have lived in 8 different countries and have traveled to over 30. This trajectory has a lot to do with decisions I made early on, for which I am forever grateful. I did not go directly from high school to university. Instead, I spent a few years traveling and working to save money to pay for my own education. For three years, I traveled throughout Europe and Venezuela, and worked to save as much money as possible. When I finally decided to go to school, I attended University of Southern California. At the age of 21, I still didn’t know what I wanted to study, so I chose a major based on the general education courses I was taking and the professors I liked. I ended up declaring a major in Classics and a minor in Middle East Studies. My Classics major brought me to Athens, Greece, where I lived and studied abroad for a year. While studying abroad in Greece, I began taking my first classes in peace and conflict resolution in the Middle East and my passion for the subject grew. After the year was up, I had fallen in love with Europe and did not want to leave. I was also not keen on accumulating massive student loan debt that the average American contends with. So, I transferred to university in Eastern Europe where I finished my bachelor’s degree in International Politics and Development. I was able to fully self-fund my education and graduated with virtually no student debt. While studying in Europe, I also worked with various European and international nonprofits in the human rights and development sectors. I actually returned to Athens, Greece to live for a second time around and worked with the Greek organization PRAKSIS, which provides social services to refugees and homeless people. After my bachelor’s degree, I moved to Cape Town, South Africa to complete my master’s degree in Human Rights Law where I focused on women’s rights and international criminal law. I think I was able to turn my dream into a reality because I seized every opportunity I could – whether academic, volunteer, or work – to be engaged with local communities and to work with grassroots initiatives and organizations. You learn so much from working with local community organizers – it’s something I really encourage young people in this field to do. It’s also framed the way I view development on a global scale. What I mean by this is, I have found that development initiatives are most successful when they involve the local community in every step of the process. That is what we aim to do at Nadia’s Initiative.
What do you feel are the most overlooked human rights issues around the globe?
To be honest, this is a difficult question to answer. There are too many human rights issues I believe are either partially or completely overlooked by the international community. However, I’m happy to see that women’s rights have finally come to the forefront of the international arena. I’m a huge advocate for gender equality and women’s empowerment. I think women’s rights are so important because they are connected to so many other issues. For example, we know for a fact that when you empower women and girls, all of society benefits. I think reframing both men and women’s place in society can lead to a cascade of betterment around the world. This means tackling toxic masculinity and femininity at the local level. In my opinion, toxic masculinity is at the heart of so many problems in this world. For example, my master’s dissertation was focused on sex discriminatory nationality laws that lead to statelessness in the Middle East. To explain further, I looked at how nationality laws in certain Middle Eastern countries prevent women from passing on their citizenship to their children and foreign spouses. These discriminatory laws exist because the concepts of nationality and kinship are still very much tied to patrilineality – the “identity” of a person can only be inherited by their father or their husband. The result is that these women and their children become stateless and lack access to basic resources and economic opportunities in their own countries. This is only one example of the negative impact common gender/sex roles have on society. Another example is human trafficking. Human trafficking is largely a women’s rights issue. Approximately 40.3 million people globally are victims of human trafficking. 75% of these victims are women and girls. 75% of women and girls are trafficked for sexual exploitation. And 75% of child trafficking victims are girls. All these numbers illustrate that this is overwhelmingly a women’s issue. And when you break it down, I believe it comes full circle to how women are defined within society and how they are often viewed by men and other women as objects. This is why change needs to start at the very root of the problem.
Can you tell me more about Nadia’s Initiative and how you initially got involved?
On August 3, 2014, ISIS began a genocidal campaign against the Yazidi ethno-religious minority that involved ethnic cleansing in the form of mass executions, forced conversions, and widespread sexual violence. These attacks resulted in the massacre of Yazidi men and older women, enslavement of more than 7,000 Yazidis (mostly women and girls), and displacement of over 400,000 Yazidis to Internally Displaced People camps in Northern Iraq. Many of the 80,000 Yazidis who have returned to their ancestral homelands in the region of Sinjar are struggling to rebuild their lives. The majority of these individuals have been without vital services, since the summer of 2014. Nadia’s Initiative is a small, relatively new organization started by the incredible and resilient Nadia Murad. Nadia is a Yazidi survivor of ISIS who has become an advocate for her community and survivors of sexual violence globally. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her advocacy work. She donated her prize winnings to the Initiative to seed our Sinjar Action Fund. The fund supports various development initiatives on the ground in Sinjar, with the ultimate aim of enabling the safe return of Yazidis to their ancestral homeland of Sinjar. I joined the organization earlier this year. I work with Nadia and our Executive Director Abid Shamdeen to design project proposals, manage project implementation, and advocate governments and international organizations to support our work for the Yazidi community and sexual violence survivors globally. We have several projects underway in Sinjar. They include building a hospital, rehabilitating several primary schools, a cash transfer economic empowerment program, rehabilitating Sinjar’s water and sanitation systems, rehabilitating farms, and teaching women small business management skills. As I said before, our approach to development at Nadia’s Initiative is to work closely with the local community to make sure they are involved in the process every step of the way. We believe this approach will enable real change on the ground. I am incredibly grateful to be working with an organization whose mission is so succinctly aligned both with what I studied and what I am passionate about. It is hard work, but it is incredibly rewarding. I am even more thrilled to be working alongside a woman who is the embodiment of resilience, determination, and strength. It takes such courage to tell one’s story of trauma and to be forced to relive it over and over again – all for the sake of a cause that is bigger than any one individual.
How can we help, whether it be getting involved in Nadia’s Initiative or other efforts to support the vision of bringing an end to Human Trafficking and sexual violence?
We would love to have people engaged in our efforts by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and helping us spread the message by re-posting and asking friends to learn more about Nadia’s Initiative and the Yazidi community.
Beyond engagement, what we really need is financial support to help get these projects off the ground. If individuals are interested in supporting our vital work in Sinjar, they can donate here:
What are your hopes and goals for the years to come, both personally, and for this world as a whole?
My hope for Nadia’s Initiative is our development initiatives and advocacy work will enable the majority of the Yazidi community to return and flourish in their ancestral homeland. This is my personal goal, as well as the organization’s goal, for years to come. If we succeed in doing so, ISIS’s goal to eradicate the Yazidis will have failed. And we will hopefully have sent a message to the world that hate and violence will no longer be tolerated. We owe it to future generations to establish successful examples of reconstruction, unity, and justice.
To learn more about Nadia’s Initiative, click here.