Born to be a human rights advocate

Melbourne JD student Mary Connellan grew up in South Africa during apartheid, and she says her parents involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle shaped her life.

Mary Connellan

“In a way I was born to be a human rights advocate, my upbringing in South Africa was the start of what seems like a natural path for me,” Ms Connellan says, adding that her parents’ support of “the freedom struggle” instilled a strong connection to rights and justice in her from an early age.

When she was 12, she and her mother moved to a more “dangerous” part of Cape Town. “I observed a lot of what was going on around me and became aware of what living a tough life actually meant,” Ms Connellan says, who later moved to South Australia with her mother when she was 16.

“I don't know if some of the people I met in my neighbourhood at that time are alive simply because of their direct exposure to crime and violence. I learnt a lot about life over this time.”

Today Ms Connellan is completing a Juris Doctor at Melbourne Law School, which she hopes will help her realise her goal to become an international criminal lawyer.

Her journey to this point, however, has taken her on an adventurous path.

More than a decade ago, Ms Connellan was accepted to enrol at MLS, but she decided to first experience more of the world, deferring law school so she could travel.

“I went back to South Africa, and then went to the US and UK, taking a gap year and travelling around.”

Eventually, Ms Connellan returned to Australia where she started a Bachelor of International Studies at the University of Adelaide, studying politics, economics, and Spanish. At the end of her degree, Ms Connellan went on exchange to Barcelona, and ended up living there for nearly five years.

“I did some work for the United Nations in Spain and also worked for the Spanish government in education,” she says. Ms Connellan also completed a Masters at the University of Barcelona in Ethics and Human Rights.

Eventually she met her partner and moved to Germany, where she worked with the Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities and started a project aimed at building safe houses for victims of sexual violence and rape in South Sudan.

“I managed to get a grant from the German Foreign Office which I’m really proud of because my German is not great,” she says.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned.

“Civil war broke out in South Sudan and the project fell through because no one was allowed in.” Ms Connellan says this was the moment she decided to return to Melbourne to pursue a JD.

“I wanted to keep fighting for human rights, but ultimately all I was doing was trying to raise funds for projects,” she says.

Wanting to do more to defend human rights and prosecute perpetrators of mass atrocities, Ms Connellan started thinking about returning to law school.

“I was looking into law schools and I thought three years could go by really quickly so why not go back to Australia, do the JD and then work in the area as a lawyer.”

Ms Connellan is currently finishing the second year of her JD while writing and editing a book on a gendered lens for genocide prevention.

“I don’t know exactly where I am going to go from here, but what I do know is that my life in South Africa shaped who I am. Had I not had that experience, I would be a very different person today.”

By Mohamed Khairat