Burnout was the catalyst for Dr Emma Fulu to launch The Equality Institute, an agency is driving real change for women and girls

by Women’s Agenda
Tuesday 11 October 2022

BAHM Phase 1 participants celebrate at the Pilot’s Closing Retreat in Dili, Timor-Leste

Around 35 per cent of women around the world have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. That’s around 818 million women–a figure so huge and confronting it’s hard to comprehend.

It was also the catalyst which spurred Dr Emma Fulu into action.

In 2015, Fulu founded The Equality Institute, a global feminist agency, where she and her team bring research, policy development and education together to enable communities to create positive change and build tangible improvement to the lives of women and girls.

But starting an independent organisation like The Equality Institute hadn’t always been on Dr Fulu’s career radar. In fact, she’d previously been fulfilled by work with the United Nations, before she was head hunted to take on another global role leading the world’s largest research program on the prevention of violence against women.

“I was in Thailand working for the United Nations and I had my first child, and then went on to have a set of twins,” she shares.

“I had the twins, they were born premature and put into ICU, and during that time I was leaving the UN and going to take up this role heading up what was at the time the world’s largest research program on the prevention of violence against women, based in South Africa.

“The program went across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, so I was travelling all over the world. I was trying to breastfeed twins, find a place to live in South Africa and settle in.”

Dr Fulu says the juggle became so challenging that it led to a very serious episode of what she now recognises as burnout.

“I’d gone on a trip from South Africa to Turkey, to Washington to New York, back to Johannesburg. Then I picked up one of my children and came to Australia. I gave a talk in Sydney and then came back to Melbourne for a week,” she shares.

“It was in Melbourne that I went to the doctor because I had a bad sinus infection and I collapsed in the doctor’s office. My body went into meltdown, and it was clear that I was not ok.”

Dr Fulu ended up resigning from her dream job, a decision that she describes as one of the hardest choices she’s had to face.

“It was a very hard decision to resign, I felt like I was resigning from my life, my whole career that I’d worked so hard to build. It was a five-year contract, I was only one year in. I felt like I was burning every bridge I’d ever built,” she says.

It was from there, while living at her mother’s place with her young family, that she knew she had to start again from scratch. She decided to launch The Equality Institute, to continue the work she was so passionate about.

“When I was healthy enough, I knew I was still passionate about this work and dedicated to the cause. I just needed to do it in a way that was more sustainable and in an organisation that centred self-care and was flexible,” she says.

“I decided to build the organisation that I wanted to work in. That’s where the Equality Institute was born.”

Now, the Equality Institute exists as a global organisation, employing 20 staff and working across 30 countries. It has three offices, across Melbourne, Alice Springs and Timor Leste.

Dr Fulu says the organisation is currently focusing on launching a new suite of online, cutting edge courses around gender equality, inclusion and diversity and inclusive language for workplaces.

“In the midst of Covid when we couldn’t travel and deliver our training in person, we started thinking about how we expand our impact in the current context,” Dr Fulu says. “We started building this online education work, trying to bring in our evidence-based and storytelling approach, where we bring together research and creative communications in a unique way.”

“These courses are outside the traditional corporate education box and are more about trying to get people to reflect on their own experiences and think about how they can make positive change to advance gender equality.”

The Equality Institute is becoming more and more focused on working at the intersection of violence against women, the climate crisis, and Indigenous rights, both in the Pacific region and in the Northern Territory. This work focuses on enabling local women’s organisations to lead change.

“We are looking at the power of women’s organisations and social movements to drive change across social justice areas.

Executive Director of M-Power Lisa Keenan says it’s so exciting to continue working with the Equality Institute.

“Dr Emma Fulu (PhD) is a global expert on violence against women and girls,” Keenan says.

“She has worked all over the world including for the United Nations and dedicated her career to advancing gender equality and ending violence against women.

“The Equality Institute was founded to acknowledge that not all women are the same, and that violence and inequality impacts women very differently.

“Emma has spearheaded the education for our MECCA teams on gender equality, diversity and inclusion, and her creativity, innovative insights and values-driven way of working have made The Equality Institute a highly valued partner.”