2020 applicants
News

Human rights pioneer and founder of Free to Run is global finalist in alumni awards

  • Date

    Thu 21 Mar 19

Stephanie Case running in South Sudan with women

An Essex alumna who has dedicated her career to helping people in conflict-torn countries has been shortlisted as Global Finalist in the prestigious British Council Alumni Awards

Stephanie Case is Head of Protection of Civilians and Child Protection for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the President and Founder of Free to Run, a non-profit organisation which uses the power of sports to help women and girls overcome the harmful effects of conflict and discrimination. She has been chosen for the Social Impact Award.

She said: “It was a great surprise! I know how many incredible candidates applied from all over the world. After reading many biographies of past finalists, it is an honour to be among this group.”

Stephanie came to the UK as a Chevening Scholar and completed an LLM in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at Essex's Human Rights Centre in 2012.

She said: “I was able to study alongside students from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines. I learned from students who came from backgrounds in politics, policing, the military, and others. I am confident that my studies abroad greatly contributed to my understanding of complex political conflicts and situations.”

"My professors were all deeply committed to human rights and humanitarian law, and they were active practitioners in the field"

She feels fortunate to have studied at Essex and learnt from leading human rights practitioners including Paul Hunt and the late Sir Nigel Rodley. 

She said: “My professors were all deeply committed to human rights and humanitarian law, and they were active practitioners in the field. They helped me to understand the realities of working in areas of conflict and elevated my comprehension of human rights and humanitarian law from the perspective of victims and survivors. My fellow students, who came from all over the world, inspired me to dream big and push beyond myself.”

During her studies, Stephanie worked as a Research Assistant at the UN Peacekeeping Law Reform Project at Essex. Here she was able to explore human rights standards for peacekeepers in the field.

After her LLM, Stephanie took on a number of jobs and projects which helped expand her knowledge of human rights from all over the world.

She worked as a UN and Human Rights Officer in New York, a Legal Officer in Afghanistan, a Human Rights Adviser in Kyrgyzstan and an Emergency Protection Manager in South Sudan.

"By creating opportunities for women and girls to step outdoors, it allows them to reclaim public space, which changes community perceptions"

In 2014 Stephanie founded Free to Run, a non-profit organization that uses running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure as a means of empowering and educating women and girls in conflict-affected communities. Stephanie’s work has supported almost 600 women and girls world-wide, including those living in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

She said: “By creating opportunities for women and girls to step outdoors, it allows them to reclaim public space, which changes community perceptions about the roles women and girls can and should play in society.”

In the same year she founded Free to Run, Stephanie was appointed Head of Gaza Office and Protections Cluster Coordinator at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As head of office she was responsible for the UN’s work in Gaza, which included monitoring cases of human rights violations, and interviewing victims of ill-treatment and alleged torture. Stephanie also chaired meetings with the Protection Cluster to consult with groups working on child protection and gender-based violence.

Since 2018 Stephanie has worked as Head of Protection of Civilians and Child Protection for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. She is responsible for overseeing the UN’s work to protect civilians and children in the country.

She works on cases of sexual violence and child recruitment in armed forces and she has led investigations into major incidents of civilian casualties. The results of these investigations have helped promote accountability for victims and in one instance, led the government to apologise for an airstrike that killed and injured dozens of children.

For Stephanie, the hardest parts of her career have also been the proudest moments.

She said: “I can recall many days when I was based in Afghanistan, South Sudan or Gaza when I questioned my ability to keep fighting for what I believed in. However, I think I am most proud about establishing Free to Run. People thought I was crazy to create an organization focused on women's sports in areas of conflict. To be honest, I doubted myself at the start. I thought perhaps I was crazy to try to make this work. However, from the first hike with women and girls in 2014, I knew I was on to something.”

"You don't know what you are capable of until you try. I feel incredibly lucky to be doing exactly what I'd always dreamed of doing"

Stephanie credits Essex for helping her stay connected to important groups and individuals in her field.

“Studying at the University of Essex gave me access to a global network of inspiring human rights advocates around the world. No matter what country I landed in, I knew that I would be able to connect with either a former student colleague of mine or someone within the alumni network.”

Stephanie explains her motto for life: “You don't know what you are capable of until you try. I feel incredibly lucky to be doing exactly what I'd always dreamed of doing.

“I haven't chosen the easiest path. My life would certainly be a lot more comfortable if I had stayed in corporate law or pursued a more traditional career path. However, I wouldn't have it any other way. Regardless of whether I've had a tough day, week, month or year, I feel immense purpose in my work and that is ultimately the most important thing.”

If she could see one big change in the world, she would like to see women around the world feel liberated and achieve their own dreams and aspirations.

She said: “I wish and strive for a world in which women and girls are free to run, wherever they may be. It isn't just about sports - it is about the ability to move freely under one's own steam, choosing one's own direction, and fulfilling one's own goals.”

The British Council Alumni Awards celebrate the outstanding achievements of alumni and showcase the impact and value of a UK higher education.

This year, more than 1,200 university graduates from more than 100 countries across the world applied for the awards.

Stephanie is one of 21 applicants to reach the global finals of the British Council Alumni Awards. The three global finalists will be announced on Thursday 4 April.