Progress isn't Linear

Emma Fulu News Activism

WORDS: DR EMMA FULU / 20.12.2019

Reflecting on a decade of activism and the tears and hope that came with it

WORDS: DR EMMA FULU / 20.12.2019

Portrait of founder Dr Emma Fulu, smiling to the camera with a city background

As we come to the end of the year, I am incredibly proud of our brilliant and passionate team, the amazing work we have contributed to around the world and the inspiring partners and individuals we have worked with.

We are still a young organisation, at just four and a half years old, but we are thriving. However, it has not always been that way. As we prepare to enter a new decade, I wanted to share some honest reflections about my personal and professional journey to get to this point.

Ten years ago, I was 30, had recently completed my PhD and was moving to Bangkok to take up a role at the United Nations program, Partners for Prevention. Over the next four years, I would lead the ground-breaking UN Multi-country Study on Men and Violence, conducting research with over 10,000 men and 3,000 women across six countries in the Asia Pacific region - Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea.

We travelled from the lush tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya to towering apartments in Jakarta. Research teams trekked for days into remote villages in Bougainville with their own generators and crossed precarious bamboo bridges over thundering flooded rivers in rural Bangladesh. When a cholera outbreak rerouted and further delayed our fieldwork, we wondered if we would ever make it. As one person remarked, it was like a soap opera of the damned. But the truly dedicated people involved in this study overcame these challenges because we knew we needed to understand men’s own experiences and behaviours in order to develop effective strategies to stop violence before it starts.

The findings – released to unprecedented media attention – reaffirmed that violence against women is highly prevalent in Asia and the Pacific. Overall, nearly half of the men interviewed reported using physical or sexual violence against a female partner in their lifetime. This experience taught me that with persistence, it is possible to undertake feminist-informed large-scale research, which can be transformative for both researchers and communities involved. It showed me the power of high-quality evidence in leading to policy and programmatic changes.

Four days after we launched the study findings at the Sexual Violence Research Initiative Forum in Bangkok, I gave birth to a set of tiny twins who would stay in the Intensive Care Unit for three weeks. I now had three children under three years old and experienced first-hand the immense challenges of balancing motherhood and a career. Even within the UN system, support for breast-feeding and flexible working arrangements were limited. I had my first inkling that there was a need for an organisation that walked the talk and genuinely supported working mothers. But I didn’t pause for too long to think about this seriously; it was time to move onto the next thing.

Now that we understood women’s experiences of violence and men’s perpetration of violence, we needed to better understand what strategies worked to prevent it. So, in 2013, I moved to South Africa to take up a job leading the What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls Programme - a flagship £25 million programme funded by the UK government. During my time at What Works, I was lucky enough to work with some the most renowned researchers and practitioners in the world and see directly that violence is preventable, and preventable within years, not lifetimes.

However, I completely underestimated the challenge of having three young children, two of whom I was still breast-feeding, setting up life in a new country, and managing such a complex program. After a ridiculous series of work trips that took me from Johannesburg to Istanbul to Washington DC to New York, back to DC, back to South Africa, then to Sydney, Canberra and finally to my hometown of Melbourne, all within three weeks, I collapsed. In my doctor’s office, treating a chronic sinus infection I’d picked up during New York’s Snowmageddon, I broke down. I was broken. I had lost myself somewhere along my overly ambitious path. As I strived to have it all, do it all, and look perfect while doing it, I had forgotten to ask myself if this was what I truly wanted.

So I resigned, without a contingency plan. We packed up our lives (again), said goodbye to our friends in South Africa and moved back to Melbourne and in with my mother. With no job or income, I went on Centrelink benefits and began to seriously reassess my life.

I tried everything and anything to rediscover my sense of self and purpose - meditation, therapy, crying, venting to friends, journaling. I learnt that we each have a deep inner wisdom but we often drown it out with external noise. If you sit still long enough to listen to your deepest desires, however, something can emerge. And what emerged for me was the idea of merging international research and creative solutions to promote gender equality and prevent violence against women. And I wanted to do it with an organisation that truly lived its values, was explicitly feminist and inclusive, and totally independent and financially sustainable. Easy, right?

And so, The Equality Institute was born. As with any growing child, we have had teething problems, stumbled and fallen, tried and failed, again and again. In truth, I had no idea how to run a company, manage human resources, or build a viable business model. There have been times we struggled to balance a non-hierarchical approach with the need for structure and processes and times we grew too quickly and lost our way. I still struggle to say ‘no’ and balance workload. But every year we get a little better at living our values, building systems of self and collective-care, and serving women and girls and the violence prevention field as best we can.

What I know for sure is when you try new things and challenge the status quo, you will fail. But progress is not linear. And what looks like an epic failure can lead to something more magical than you could have ever imagined. The only way I know to go forward is to learn from my mistakes, stay curious, keep being brave and move towards the highest vision of ourselves and the world.

When I hear the laughter around our office, see the genuine care our staff show for each other, engage with our vibrant social media community, work with our wonderful partners and clients, and see the impact we have on the ground, I know we are on the right path. And I am forever grateful for the journey that has brought me here.

Wishing you a wonderful year and decade ahead.

With love and joy,


Ten Noteworthy Mentions from the Decade that was…

  1. Thirst Aid Kit– I love this podcast which explores various ways women express their desire and tries to disrupt mainstream ideas about beauty. It’s equal parts hilarious, thoughtful, and illuminating. Bring a straw… and come thirst with me.
  2. Glam Corner- As many of you know I love fashion and I recently subscribed to the monthly clothes box at Glam Corner which gives you three items of clothing per month for just $99. It’s perfect for me. With all my international travel for work, I can get a winter coat for Geneva one month and a summer dress for Melbourne the next. I buy less, waste less, and it’s a B corp so you’re supporting more ethical shopping.
  3. Binge worthy! If you haven’t seen Fleabag yet, what are you doing? Seriously. I have nothing more to say, just watch it.
  4. Insight Timer – I’ve been meditating for over 20 years, but I love this meditation and mindfulness app because it has so many diverse teachers and styles of meditation. It’s even got meditations for kids.
  5. The Fold- This is a bit of a financial investment but I’m loving this brand which is especially designed for women with larger busts. It’s often hard to find something that fits well - these are for D+, they match bra sizes and they fit so well. No more beach mishaps.
  6. Along with the rest of the world I’m listening to Lizzo on repeat. Especially when I need a pick me up or just want to dance around my bedroom!
  7. Dare to Lead - I recently did the Brene Brown Dare to Lead course which was amazing. I know not everyone can do the course but I also highly recommend the book. It will make you think differently about what leadership looks like.
  8. It’s not new but if you haven’t read Becoming by Michelle Obama, try the audio book. It’s like having her talking to you personally. Perfect for the holidays.
  9. OMGYes – Promoting gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights is not just about consent and safe sex. I think we need to talk more about pleasure, especially female pleasure. This website provides an an honest, informative, research-based approach to women's pleasure. Yes please.
  10. Invisible women - This book is on my summer reading list. It examines the ‘gender data gap - and the way our world was largely built by and for men. I’m excited to dig in!