Interview: She’s Right Founder

Reposted from French Embassy 2021 Generation Equality – Women’s Portraits

Bonjour Jessica, could you please introduce yourself?

Bonjour ! My name is Jessica Sutton, I am 24 years old, and I work in the justice sector. I recently graduated from law school at the top of my class, and in September I will begin my Master’s studies at Oxford University in the UK under a Rhodes Scholarship. My main area of interest is the intersection between women’s rights and the law, particularly in the context of international law.

Could you briefly explain what is your project and how it is related to gender equity?

Alongside my academic work which focuses on women’s rights issues and feminist legal theory, I am the chair and co-founder of an intersectional feminist charitable trust called She’s Right. We publish weekly educational articles and podcasts, aimed at raising awareness of global women’s rights challenges. The idea for the trust came out of discussions with other delegates during my participation in the LabCitoyen women’s rights conference in Paris in 2019. I felt that each of the young activists I met had incredible stories that needed to be shared in New Zealand – thus, She’s Right was born. The trust will soon celebrate its 2nd anniversary. A highlight of our year is our participation in UN Women’s 16 days of activism to end violence against women public campaign, from 25 November (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) to 10 December (International Human Rights Day). In what we have termed our “women’s rights marathon”, we publish one new article or podcast every day for the 16 days, dedicating each article to a woman who has lost her life to gender-based violence.

Through She’s Right, I am hoping to elevate the message of intersectional feminism and bring it to the attention of people who might not otherwise have engaged with women’s rights. Feminism is still disparaged by some people – some out of ignorance or misogyny, some because they associate the movement with white women fighting for themselves and excluding the needs of other women. I want to demonstrate that real feminism is intersectional, and that the rights and needs of indigenous women, women of colour, LGBT+ women, and disabled women are central to the movement.

What sort of difficulties if any have you been facing as a woman, in your daily life, in your career or in your different projects?

Young women in the legal industry inescapably face certain obstacles. The industry remains male-dominated in its upper echelons, and career advancement as a woman is challenging. Young female lawyers must contend with issues ranging from casual sexism in the workplace to sexual harassment and assault. Outside of the workplace, just being a woman brings a level of fear – fear of exclusion, fear of harassment, fear of violence. But I know that I have a lot of privilege as a white woman with a legal education. I am also very lucky to have never been a victim of gender-based violence. I feel I have a duty to use my skills for the benefit of those who have less privilege, in particular women of colour, indigenous women, and trans women who are often mistreated in a legal system that was made by, and for, white men. I aim to dedicate my career to combatting the systemic discrimination that women face, particularly in the legal system.

Which specific gender equity, gap to fill, issues would you like to address first and how do you do it?

My key area of interest is the eradication of gender-based violence – violence most frequently perpetrated by men against women because of their gender, or violence that is disproportionately experienced by women. Within this area, intimate partner violence has been a focus of my research and She’s Right work. Aotearoa has one of the worst rates of intimate partner violence in the developed world. Solving intimate partner violence is not simple. A variety of factors must be considered, including misogyny, gender roles, poverty, and the impact of colonialism. The issue must be approached on multiple fronts – not only, for example, funding women’s refuges and deploying more support to Maori women who experience violence more frequently, but also addressing prevention. I am a strong advocate for gender equality education in schools. If we can teach children early that girls, boys and gender diverse people are equally capable and worthy of respect, we may be able to stop the seeds of future violence. This basic gender equality education could then be built on at high school, through detailed teaching about consent and healthy conflict resolution. I think education is an unparalleled means to avoid unhealthy gender stereotypes taking root and harming our young people.

Would you have a message for young women in New Zealand and in the Pacific region?

I would tell young women that we are living at a time where sexism and misogyny are on the rise, and we need strong advocates on this issue. I strongly believe in the potential of women and girls in Aotearoa and the Pacific to be leaders, peacebuilders, and activists. Aotearoa has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the OECD. Women here and in the Pacific experience the absolute grief of seeing women dying because of gender-based violence, most frequently at the hands of their partners, the people that should love and protect them. An important way to combat this harm is to seek out information and collaborate with other advocates to draw attention to the rights and needs of women and girls. Anyone can speak out on this issue, and it is imperative that more people do.

Is there any particular issue you would like the Generation Equality Forum to address?

I hope that the Generation Equality Forum will focus on the harm that the COVID-19 pandemic has done to women’s rights globally. Women are approximately 70% of our frontline health workers and the majority of unpaid care workers, meaning they are most exposed to infection. Further, the economic downturn is hitting women most severely, as women are still primarily concentrated in informal or part time jobs which are being lost through the pandemic. Out of the 11,000 job losses in the first quarter of 2020 in Aotearoa, 10,000 were jobs held by women. Really pressingly, I would like the Generation Equality Forum to address the rise in male violence against women during the pandemic. Lockdowns, although necessary, have led to increased intimate partner violence and other family violence. This increased violence, combined with the economic damage women have sustained during the pandemic, means that women’s rights are in a particularly dangerous position in 2021. We must take a stand to protect them.

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