“Empowerment is all about taking control over your life, really owning it.”

Have you ever met someone who, after speaking with them, gave you an entirely new perspective on the world? We have a feeling that this interview with Emma Foley is going to do just that.

What made you want to switch from the financial services industry in London to becoming a human rights advocate? Was there a single, defining moment?
London is an amazing city and I spent many fond years exploring what it had to offer me and enjoying the social scene. The work had its positives too. It taught me a lot about business, determination and people and cemented a solid work ethic in me.

At work I was consumed by money and alcohol. Whilst I had plenty of both, there was something was missing and I wanted to be a part of something positive. So I made the decision to leave London, my friends and a generous salary. Lots of people questioned what on earth I was doing. To be completely honest, I did a couple of times too. But I stayed focused and joined the UK’s leading Youth Charity to support those from disadvantaged backgrounds. At the same time, I also joined as a voluntary committee member at a local Homeless Charity. It was eye opening stuff. Just like that, my life began to find purpose and meaning.

After two years I began looking at options to focus my career within the Human Rights field. I came across a Human Rights Organisation whose work specialised in the prevention of child rape and HIV infection in South Africa. That was it. I resigned from my job, packed my bags and got on a plane.

Were you always interested in helping the underprivileged? If not, what was it like during your first volunteer position at the local Homeless Charity?
Since I was a little girl I have had a passion for social justice and human rights and did a lot of voluntary work as a teenager. Yet as a recent graduate and like too many others, I was consumed with societal pressures and swept up in the glamour and allure of a ‘corporate lifestyle.’

Where have you been, where are you currently, and what do your travel plans look like?
I’ve been away from the UK for 6 months and have spent time in India, Botswana, Mozambique, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa. I’ve worked with sexual abuse centres, HIV orphanages, HIV wellness clinics, career centres, and an anti-trafficking organisation. It’s been life changing.

Of course there are negatives – corruption rates and violent crime are high, and I am not swamped with the privileges afforded to those of us living in Europe (high standards of public services, running water or super speedy broadband). Yet I have been introduced to some of the most gentle, kind and positive people I have ever met in my life, whose attitudes and outlooks can teach many of us lessons in overcoming life’s hardships.

When I return to the UK I will be applying my experiences in an International Human Rights Law (LLM) Masters. My master plan is to generate hope and confidence and to achieve a reduction in suffering and injustice. Aim high, right?

What do you think is the most pressing social justice issue that women our age need to be aware of?
To some extent it depends where in the world you grew up. Young girls growing up in severe poverty in Mozambique face completely different obstacles to young girls born into wealthy families in America. But racism, sexism, sexual orientation, religious believes and the large disparity between rich and poor are still very real and affect all of us globally.

It’s Women’s Month in South Africa right now (August), which is about empowering women and closing the gender inequality gap. It’s interesting because gender inequality here is rife and the patriarchal system frequently oppresses women. I read a lot about ‘empowering women’ but sometimes wonder if the message gets lost. How do I become an empowered woman? What does that really mean to me?

Empowerment is all about taking control over your life, really owning it. It’s about being responsible for your education and skillset, developing it if you need too. Working to increase your confidence and self worth. Running your own agenda. Speaking out for what you believe in.

It doesn’t matter whether we are born black, white, yellow or striped, with boobs or a beard, we have the same rights and opportunities as anyone else. We should be allowed to enjoy our reproductive and sexual rights, freedom from violence and equal rights in any society across the globe.

If a partner is abusive to you, report it. Unable to get a management level position at work due to your gender? Speak up about it. A victim of child marriage? Find your voice and tell us. Opening up these lines of communication encourages others to do the same and speak out for inequality. Together we can apply pressure and really make a difference.

Is there one (or more!) story that is your most memorable, or that really changed you?
In London my drinking became problematic. It was easy to disguise because I spent a lot of time entertaining clients, in bars or at social gatherings. And hey, who doesn’t love a glass of wine after a hard day in the office? But I was miserable in who I was becoming and the growing pay cheques just weren’t making me happy, so I drank them away. The life that I thought I should have began to crumble around me and I realised that something needed to change.

I knew I wouldn’t find happiness until I put the drink down and let the dust settle. So that’s what I did. It was the hardest and best thing i’ve ever done; the reason I finally became honest with myself, the reason I am sat here writing this.

Who are your role models?
This might sound a bit clichéd, but it’s my mum. She has taught me everything I know. To stand up for what I believe, to work hard, to be kind, to be strong and to never put reds in a white clothes wash.

My mum has always given me fantastic advice. She’s been there for all my highs and she’s supported me throughout the lows (and trust me, there’s been a lot of those). I wouldn’t be here without her and she inspires me to be my best.

On the off change she reads this – thank you mumps, you’re fabulous.

Where do you want to be in the next 5 – 10 years?
Crikey! One thing I’ve learnt is that plans never go as you thought they would. As a teenager I thought by now I’d be married with two children, a house and a maybe a cute cat. But right now I couldn’t afford a downpayment on a garden shed, and i’ve developed an allergy to cats. Things change.

Life has a funny way of working out if you are honest with yourself and try to do the next best thing. So that’s what I try to do. I’d like to be a positive role model who generates hope, equality and justice for those I work with. I’d like to be a good mum. I’d like to have an article published in a magazine. In ten years time I’d like to look back to see my work making a positive impact.

…Watch this space!

What do you want other young women to know? Whether it’s about you, feminism, social rights, global politics, careers, anything!
We live in a world plagued by celebrities, brands and material possessions and there is a huge pressure on women to conform. The sad truth is that I know if I posted a seductive picture of myself in my underwear, it would receive many more likes than any of my posts on human rights advocacy, child rape or domestic violence. We seem to live in a world where people are a little, how do I say, self-obsessed.

I met a girl recently who was more concerned about how on fleek her eyebrows were than anything else. I’ve seen someone ignoring a homeless man in the street to take a selfie, or ghosting their friend because she put on weight. Where’s the love, loyalty and kinship in that?

Validating ourselves through how many likes we get posting a nudie on social media may provide us with instant gratification and a temporary good feeling, but it does little (or nothing) to develop our personal growth, long term happiness or meaningful relationships. I think some of us have forgotten to love the parts of us (and others), that are left once the clothes and make-up come off.

Admiring someones talents, or someones knowledge about a topic. Respecting someone’s beliefs or appreciating someones loyalty. Showing unfaltering love and support to each other through life’s good times and bad times, being a wonderful daughter, sister, mother or friend.

We talk about empowering women, but we can only achieve that when women love each other.

If you’ve got to the end of this article, firstly thank you for staying with me. Now please, pick up your phone and rather than taking a selfie, send a message to another women in your life who you really value, and let her know.

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