Olivia Wells: Quality Support for Women Survivors in Conflict Zones

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Olivia Wells, Director of Programs and Communications for Nadia’s Initiative, a nonprofit founded by Nadia Murad that supports “community-driven and survivor-centric sustainable development programs.” 

Olivia Wells, courtesy of Olivia Wells

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession? 

Bureaucracy; you learn about it in school, and you begin to see it when you enter the workforce but you don’t realize how many bureaucratic impediments there are to humanitarian work until you’re in the thick of it. You naively think that at the end of the day, we all want the same thing – to help those most vulnerable – so we should streamline processes to get those in need the help they deserve as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. The humanitarian sector is still saturated with top-down approaches to development. Many government and private funders insist on funding large organizations like the various UN entities, rather than investing in local NGOs. Local NGOs have a direct line to the communities they serve and are often able to implement projects more efficiently and for less money. These are the organizations we should be investing in.

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge? 

Finding a work/life balance. It’s a personal and professional challenge. When you work in the humanitarian sector and are involved in day-to-day programming like I am, it can be all-consuming. You are designing projects, advocating for funding and drafting policies, all with the ultimate goal of supporting vulnerable and marginalized groups of people. The work I do at Nadia’s Initiative aims to help the Yazidi community, which has survived genocide and widespread sexual violence. The Yazidis are in urgent need of humanitarian support to rebuild their lives. I feel an obligation to work as hard as I can to make sure, at minimum, that they are clothed, housed and fed. The long-term goal is to enable this community to move past survival mode. Ultimately, when lives are on the line, it’s hard to detach from work. 

3. What inspires you most about your work? 

Knowing that the time and energy I put into my work has a direct positive impact on those most vulnerable. I love my work because it is the nexus of all things I studied and have been pouring my heart into for the past decade – sustainable development, gender equity, empowerment of marginalized communities and human rights law. Being able to work directly with marginalized communities by supporting and investing in their needs is what drives me to keep moving forward. 

4. How does your gender identity inform your work? 

As a woman who has faced gender discrimination in nearly every work and academic space, I know the vital importance of investing in and empowering women, particularly those most marginalized. This means that every project I design is developed with a gender-lens. It’s important to me to have a balance of women-specific development programs and programs that target the community as a whole. Regardless of the type of project, they must all be developed with a survivor-centric approach, which entails local community input. It is sometimes difficult to implement programs that are women-specific in a historically patriarchal society. What can help to overcome these impediments is doing targeted community outreach to the men in the community. If you are able to communicate to men that empowering women will empower the broader community, the slow process of acceptance and shifting of perceptions begins to take place.

5. How can philanthropy support gender equity? 

Philanthropists and philanthropy organizations should be investing in diverse women-led organizations, especially those supporting programs for marginalized women and girls. When we talk about supporting gender-equity, we should be talking about providing comprehensive support to women and girls. I’ve come across many organizations that develop programs that only cover one aspect of women and girls’ needs. A holistic approach to programming should always be taken. For example, at Nadia’s Initiative, we provide survivors of conflict-related sexual violence with psychosocial support, economic opportunities, education, healthcare, clean water and shelter. Provided in tandem, and with the needs of women and girls in mind, this kind of support can begin to transform lives.

6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?

I hope that the growing support for gender equity movements will not wane in the coming decade. We have such an immense amount of work to do to usher in a world that is truly and comprehensively equitable for all genders. We need to keep pushing forward at full steam. Privileged women – particularly white women who were fortunate to grow up in privileged communities – need to use their privilege to become allies of BIPOC and transgender women. These women often face insurmountable obstacles in their fight for equal rights. Allyship can help them to amplify their voices. The only way we will achieve global gender equity is by pursuing it together and with each other’s support.

More on Olivia Wells:

Olivia Wells is a human rights advocate with a master’s degree in human rights law. Her expertise is in gender-based violence, international criminal law and genocide prevention with a regional focus on the Middle East. Over the past six years, she has worked with several European and American NGOs, conducting policy research, promoting civic mobilization, managing donor relations and establishing and maintaining partnerships. She has worked on the ground with marginalized communities in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Southern Africa to help implement community-led development. She has also worked with refugee aid programs in Southern Europe and is responsible for initiating several psychosocial support projects for refugees in Athens, Greece.

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Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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