Human Rights ACTIVIST


Ann Olivarius awakened to serious poverty at age 17, when she traded the New Jersey suburbs for an AFS scholarship to Peru.  She was assigned to stay with the rector of the local university in the city of Piura, with his large and prosperous family in a beautiful villa; but as she walked around the city, she saw countless families living in abject misery in hovels, children playing soccer with animal skulls. 

Back in the US, fortunate enough to get into Yale, she threw herself into studying politics and the law from a feminist standpoint; and over time she came to believe in a chain of logic that says peace depends on justice; that justice is not possible if half the population faces systematic barriers to equal treatment; so that enhancing women’s rights – equal pay for equal work, effective legal and cultural barriers against rape, violence and harassment, building a culture where men and women are truly equal and enjoy the challenges of being so  – creates the essential preconditions for a more peaceful, prosperous and happier planet.   

So, coining the term “date rape,” or organizing the Alexander v. Yale case that led a federal court to hold that it was illegal if a university did not have a system for dealing with sexual harassment, or representing victims of discrimination and child sexual abuse in the courts during her legal career, Olivarius views as bricks in a bigger edifice of a more hopeful world, where human rights truly are universally respected.  


Olivarius has travelled widely, in east Asia, India, South America, Europe, Africa and Australia. She believes there is always something to learn from other cultures, and likes getting “stuck in.” After graduating from Yale, she spent four months in poor sections of Manila delivering babies with a team of midwives.  More recently, she helped run GenerationNext!, a charity that raised money in the UK to give to the Vuleka School in South Africa, which specializes in educating students from very poor homes, including AIDS orphans; she repeatedly visited.  She has served on the boards of Autistica, Britain’s largest autism research charity; Women Moving Millions, which promotes philanthropy to help women and girls; and openDemocracy, which promotes a global dialogue about important issues using the internet.

A commitment to human rights means challenging inequality, and economic inequality is a stark reminder that not everybody has what they need. At Oxford, Olivarius focused her DPhil research on seeing if worker-led businesses, which at their best produced both good profits and deep worker satisfaction, could be scaled up to be a major part of the economy – so that more people could derive more benefit from their work.  It was clear that cooperatives often performed extremely well, but she saw that they also placed unusual demands on workers in terms of “soft skills” of working together, which our system of education did not prepare workers to solve readily.

It is her work as a feminist lawyer that has absorbed most of Olivarius’ energy in promoting human rights.  She has represented scores of victims of sexual violence and harassment in the United States and UK against companies, churches, universities and other institutions that have protected perpetrators.  More recently, she has been seeking better legal avenues to protect victims of the internet, which because of its anonymity and global reach can instantly turn victims’ lives upside down.  She has represented many victims of non-consensual pornography (“revenge porn”), where intimate images are posted without the depicted person’s consent.  A recent prominent case run by Olivarius involved Chrissy Chambers, the YouTube star, whose former boyfriend posted a video of his raping her.  After many frustrating years, the perpetrator ended up apologizing and paying restitution.  Olivarius is continuing to press to strengthen laws in this area so there will be fewer victims in the future.  Here as in other areas of her practice, Olivarius is trying to import enduring conceptions of human rights into the new problems of the digital age, which require an international approach.

Olivarius advised Queen Rania of Jordan on redrafting the Jordanian constitution on matters concerning women.  She also advised Nelson Mandela on ways to abolish honor killings, child marriage, female genital cutting, human trafficking, and female illiteracy, and spoke to him about the value of establishing a group of senior world leaders to promote progressive values and peace. That eventually saw fruition in “The Elders,” which Mandela founded in 2007.  In 2003, he introduced Olivarius to a meeting of Rhodes Scholars in Cape Town as “a lawyer who has advised me well and who has courageously advanced the cause of justice, and improved life opportunities, for hundreds of millions of women, blacks and disadvantaged, worldwide.”

In January 2019, Olivarius served as an invited British expert at the Futures Congress, a major annual gathering of intellectuals and practitioners organized by the Senate of Chile. This event has become the most important yearly scientific conference in Latin America, and includes Nobel laureates, scientists, and researchers, all furthering the “understanding of emerging trends.” She used her experiences as a British-American lawyer and scholar to discuss how to advance effective legal protections for women against sexual harassment and violence – because as she has long believed, advancing the rights of women to equality at the most basic level, the protection of their bodies and self-respect at home and at work, advances social justice, which is the most enduring foundation for peace.

Media of Ann