Dr Emma Fulu with her InStyle and Audi Style Scholarship award

Dr Emma Fulu with her InStyle and Audi Style Scholarship award

The statistics are confronting. The problem itself, even more so, but Dr Emma Fulu is determined to make a positive difference to the lives of countless women and girls in the ongoing struggle to combat violence against women.

It’s a chilling fact that globally, one woman in three will experience physical or sexual violence during their lives, a statistic Dr Fulu and her team are working to correct through research into the causes of violence and strategies to both help combat it at the source and deal with the consequences.

It’s a complex and deeply entrenched problem that transcends borders and exists across cultures, requiring specific solutions in different regions and those with differing cultural backgrounds.

There is no easy ‘fix’ and the problem is on a scale that would deter most, but Dr Fulu is not daunted, despite the magnitude of what she faces.

Armed with a doctorate in Gender Studies from the University of Melbourne, Dr Fulu has worked around the world in studying the root causes of this violence and in doing so, finding strategies to help governments and communities deal with the problem.

Recently awarded the InStyle and Audi Style Scholarship for her work in this field, the Director and Founder of the Equality Institute spoke with Audi Magazine about what drives her and how she deals with the challenges of her role.


AM: What was it, aside from the obvious need for action in this area that attracted you or found you working in this particular field?

Emma Fulu: I’ve worked on the issue now for nearly 15 years and it became a passion of mine quite early on in life. I was always driven to do something around social justice. Even from when I was a very young child I had an urge to make the world a better place I guess. 

And then I studied at university, gender and equality and I was interested in women’s issues and recognised some of the struggles that women face. I was also very interested in working in developing countries, so when I graduated I went to work in the Maldives, which is where my father is originally from.

I worked with the Ministry of Gender at the time and they asked me to start looking into the issue of violence against women. They had an inkling that there was a problem but they’d never looked into it. So it was very much a matter of starting from scratch to understand the problem and what the causes were. So I guess that’s where it all started.

At around the same the tsunami hit which had a devastating effect on the Maldives and the whole region and that just made everything all the more urgent.

AM: It’s such an enormous problem. How do you even start to tackle it?

Emma Fulu: It is a massive problem and there’s no quick solution unfortunately. It’s going to take a long time to really change the deep-rooted social norms and cultures that basically drive violence. I think it’s something that everyone needs to be involved in, helping to prevent violence, and we’re just doing our small part, working alongside and collaborating with lots of other organisations doing work in the sector as well.

AM: It seems that the issue is omnipresent and forever in the media – does that mean it’s getting worse in the modern day?

Emma Fulu: It does have the appearance of being more in the public eye, but I guess I see that as a positive. Violence against women in lots of societies, even in Australia in the past was very hidden. It’s been considered a private family issue and there’s a lot of shame associated with it. That makes it very hard for women to seek help and for us as a society to really address the problem. 

When we start to bring it out into the public sector and identify it as something that we all have a responsibility for addressing, then yes we see rates of reporting  and calls to the police going up. But that’s a short term thing and that’s a positive thing … and as we start to address the root causes we’ll see that go down.

So yes, it may seem that things are getting worse from the widespread reports in the media, but once upon a time it wouldn’t have even made it to the media.

AM: You conducted a ground-breaking study for the UN that came up with some extraordinary findings. Can you explain their significance for future work into causes?

Emma Fulu: The study was the first multi-country study of its type looking into male violence against women and girls in Asia and the Pacific. It was conducted across six countries (Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka), in rural and urban settings within each country. We found that although the rates of violence were high [for example, that 1 in 4 men who were  interviewed admitted to having raped a woman or girl in their lifetime] that number varied greatly from country to country and was higher for example in post conflict areas.

The fact that there was such a difference in rates not only between countries but also within countries shows that violence is not inevitable and that if we are to find solutions we have to isolate the root causes.

AM: What is the Australian government doing and what more needs to be done to make a real difference for the future?

Emma Fulu: On the positive, in Australia and internationally the issue is on the agenda now. Internationally with the new Sustainable Development Goals all member states of the UN now have to report on their progress on this issue.

At least in Australia there is a strong framework for what needs to be done but I think governments need to move from the rhetoric phase to the action phase and accept that it’s a problem that requires a long-term, holistic approach … we haven’t yet seen the comprehensive investment needed to support that.

I do think we’re moving forward but there’s still a long way to go.

It’s about everybody playing a role. We have to work across the health sector, the legal sector, justice and community development, education … and it has to be a co-ordinated approach.

AM: Obviously there are different cultural factors that play a part both here in Australia and more so in other countries.

Emma Fulu: There are lots of factors that have to be tackled in different cultural contexts. It could be the issue of honour and shame in some parts of South Asia or the rights of women in marriage and divorce …  we need to understand these first, so we have to do the research to understand the different cultural factors and drivers. 

AM: How do you stay sane in such a confronting environment?

Emma Fulu: Well, I have three children who keep me very sane, and I also feel that I work in a position where I feel I can have a positive impact. But I’m not a front line worker and I think I would find that very challenging. There are people who do absolutely amazing work that I don’t think I’d be able to do. From crisis counsellors to social workers and police … there are lots of people who've got it a lot harder than I do.

I’ve got a great team around me, and I’ve got a great family and I try to keep things balanced.

I think I’d feel far more depressed if I wasn’t trying to do something about it.

AM: You started the Equality Institute to help combat this problem. What are your next steps?

Emma Fulu: We’re growing quite rapidly, so we’re looking to continue expanding our partnerships here and overseas. We’re doing some exciting work with the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). We’re looking to build our volunteer program, but I guess in the medium term I’d like to see us getting to the stage where we have the base funding to develop our own specific projects and campaigns, particularly in Australia.

We see that there are some gaps and we want to start a much more mainstream conversation. 

AM: There’s obviously no quick fix here, but do you see a time in the foreseeable future where violence against women becomes the exception?

Emma Fulu: It’s very much a long term problem, that requires generational change, but I do see a time when violence against women will be the exception instead of the norm.

I think that the more people talk about it and the more people come together, the less daunting it feels. I think if you’re standing out there alone it seems like an impossible task … but there are more and more people who are really committed to making a positive change so I think that is really hopeful.


This article first appeared on the Audi Magazine website.