Connecting The Dots – Feminist Activist Leadership

2 October 2019

“Girls are a force to be reckoned with – they are unscripted and unstoppable” says Emma Rainey, a young and forceful feminist activist based in Brussels with Northern-Irish roots. One week ahead of the International Day of the Girl, we wanted to know from Emma where she got her inspiration from, what she believes the EU can do for girls all around the world and what her advice would be to those girls ready to grab life by the lapels?

Where did you get your inspiration from? Do you have a role figure?

I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to grow up surrounded by strong women. Coming from Belfast, Northern Ireland, life wasn’t easy for my community and women stepped up when times were hard – making them the backbone for local change – my granny being one of them.

Bernadette Devlin (McAliskey) was an Irish civil rights leader in Northern Ireland who campaigned for equal voting rights, better social housing and to end employment discrimination. Her political life was extraordinary and she often spoke out in solidarity with other oppressed people.

It’s women like my granny and Bernadette who inspire me. They knew they would face class, sectarian and patriarchal barriers but that didn’t stop them from trying and succeeding in bringing about change.

At what moment in life did you realise you were going to become an activist?

My feminism is my activism so I guess you can ask me when did I have my feminist awakening. Going back to growing up in Northern Ireland, I was surrounded by a lot of social deprivation and violence – both sectarian violence and gender-based violence.

I was about eight years when I began to question my environment and I remember feeling incredibly angry at the many forms of injustice around me. I wrote stories and poetry as a means to channel my frustration until I became old enough to proactively channel it into cross-community youth programmes.

Moving to Brussels when I turned 21 opened up a whole new space for me to engage with feminist activism and to learn from more diverse perspectives.

Through your activities with Young Feminist Europe, BXL-Irish for Choice and The Brussels Binder, you must have a clear idea what feminist leadership is about. Could you tell us what this means to you?

Feminist leadership is about taking a step back, being able to see the bigger picture. It’s about acknowledging the intersectional experiences we all face and making space for those who need it most 

In my personal feminism, I try to take a holistic approach as the inequalities we face because of our gender are all interconnected. That is why I’m involved in BXL-Irish for Choice because bodily autonomy and reproductive rights are the cornerstone for women’s emancipation; while The Brussels Binder promotes women’s voices in public debates and advocate for equal representation; and at Young Feminist Europe, we focus on building transformative and inclusive spaces that enables young feminist participation and greater movement building for systemic change.

Feminist leadership is about taking a step back, looking at all the interconnected dots and being able to see the bigger picture. It’s about acknowledging the myriad of intersectional experiences we all face and making space for those who need it most. Leading is not about cultivating followers but rather building spaces for community innovation. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, leadership is leading from behind.

If you could give one piece of advice to all the girls out there trying to change the world, what would it be?

I think Maya Angelou said it best – you just gotta go out and grab life by the lapels. Taking that first step is hard but simple actions like attending your first feminist circle meeting can set you down a path you wouldn’t have imagined possible for yourself and I can say this from experience.

I think Maya Angelou said it best – you just gotta go out and grab life by the lapels. 

Greta Thunberg sat outside the Swedish Parliament protesting all by herself against the Climate Crisis and she sparked a global movement of young people advocating for change. Intuition is a powerful tool and it’s something we all have. If something feels right, don’t let hesitation stop you, just do it!

Furthermore, surround yourself with people who are going to uplift you – your tribe are very important for when the fight gets tough.

Do you believe institutions like the EU can make a difference for young people? If so, how can/should they support young activists around the world?

I believe the EU can make a difference – programmes like ERASMUS can be transformative and I was lucky to have benefited from it. However, the EU can do more!

Current mechanisms that enable youth participation in EU decision-making need to be more than consultative. If the EU is serious about making a positive impact on youth, the recommendations that are made by young people need to carry more weight and influence.

Good policymaking is about taking a holistic view; therefore, the issues that impact youth should not just be confined to a singular ‘youth policy’. Just as we have gender mainstreaming, there needs to be youth mainstreaming across the board. It’s also often the case that when there are budgetary cuts, funding for youth programmes takes a hit. Investing in young people is investing in the future – this should always be a priority.

Last but certainly not least, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have limited access to spaces that provides the opportunity for them to engage in decision-making processes or other youth programmes. The EU needs to assess how it can reach those young people. 

On the 11 October we celebrate the International Day of the Girl (IDG). What message would you like to share across the whole world on this day?

Girls are a force to be reckoned with – they are unscripted and unstoppable. They are self-mobilising and building movements to demand better. Imagine the possibilities if we provided them with the space and resources to make systemic change for the benefit of all?

  • Face, Person, Human
    Emma Rainey

    Young feminist Europe, BXL-Irish for Choice and The Brussels Bind

Youth empowerment, Activism