Through my work, I have come to understand how violence is integral to the experience of women and girls in conflict areas, whether as refugees or internally displaced persons. It is a very difficult area in which to work as often there is so much shame and stigma that those who have been affected do not want to talk about it. So I tend to work at a community rather than individual level – talking in generalities about what “we” might do in preventative efforts rather than focusing on responding to discrete cases.
As a protection officer, Olivia Wellesley-Cole provides people with strategies, structures and the confidence to protect themselves. This is a job that has evolved from her work in Australia and overseas to help develop responses to the many forms of sexual abuse and violence against women.
Olivia grew up in two countries, attending secondary school in Sierra Leone followed by university in the UK. She subsequently moved to Australia where she became active in multicultural community organisations, including those of the Sierra Leonean and African communities. She became involved in supporting the resettlement of refugees from ongoing conflicts in Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Democratic Republic of Congo amongst others. This led her to join the Australian National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW) and to come to recognise the extent of problems faced by women in conflict areas, and in all stages of the refugee journey – in flight, in camps or other forms of displacement, and sometimes even on returning home or in resettlement to a new place, a new home.
This experience prompted a return to university where she undertook a Master in International Law, specialising in Refugee Law, International Humanitarian Law (otherwise known as the Laws of War), Human Rights Law and International Dispute Resolution. She learned that violence against women is a breach of both humanitarian law and human rights law, and can be a reason for a woman to be determined as a refugee.
After completing her degree in 2006, Olivia worked with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Timor Leste, Darfur, South Sudan and Sri Lanka; with the UN children’s agency (UNICEF) in the Pacific region focusing on Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu; and for the UN World Food Program based in Bangkok, Thailand, but visiting Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Throughout her career, Olivia’s focus has been on developing systems to prevent or reduce the incidence of opportunistic or systematic abuse and sexual exploitation of women and girls in situations of conflict, post-conflict and natural disasters. In addition, she has had to devise and implement systems to respond to such incidents by referring or reporting the incidents.
Olivia is based Sydney and travels to different regions, depending on the conflict. Currently, she works with UNHCR in Myanmar in a role encompassing camp coordination and camp management, providing advice on the layout of evacuation centres or camps for refuges or internally-displaced people, separating those who are particularly vulnerable in this situation. She ensures that women can be registered as the main recipients of food aid (so that the food is more likely to go to the children rather than being sold off for other goods); she positions toilet facilities close to accommodation, with lit paths, so that women and children can safely access the toilets at night; and she works with local governments and other service providers (health, legal, police) to determine appropriate referral mechanisms and facilitate safe places of consultation if women or girls (or boys) have been sexually or otherwise abused.
Olivia spends a lot of time training staff from her own and partner organisations on why the above actions are needed, also providing the background on the framework of international law and the humanitarian principles which are used to determine responses to violence against women and girls. She talks to male as well as female members of the affected communities about their concerns, and the way that these might be addressed (including what they can do to help themselves). Her ultimate goal is for communities to own these responsibilities, ensuring the sustainability of her work.