How SOUL Demands Respect for Females

A new organisation aims to replace prejudice and discrimination toward women with respect and empowerment

Julie Bartlett of new charitable organisation, SOUL. Picture / Jason Oxenham.

Julie Bartlett is the last person you’d expect to admit to being prejudiced. For two decades, she has worked tirelessly for others, through Save the Children, Alzheimers Foundation, Autism NZ and Multiple Sclerosis Society. She and husband Roy Bartlett founded StarJam, empowering thousands of talented members of the disabled community, and helping to change perceptions.

In 2013, she was appointed Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her work. A longterm vegan, she has a warmth about her that suggests she’s kind to every creature she meets. But yes, she says, in the past, she’s been guilty of skimming over the “less familiar” sounding names of people who have applied to work with her.

“It’s a shocking realisation, and I’m ashamed to think, ‘oh do I do that?’ That’s terrible. I didn’t even realise I did it. And we all do, it’s part of human nature.

“I don’t want to justify it but I guess we discriminate where there’s some level of discomfort or unfamiliarity or it’s outside our comfort zone. It happens to all refugees and migrants in this country, or anyone who is seen as different, who doesn’t fit or speak our language or wear the right clothes or whatever it is.”

Bringing such unconscious behaviours into the light is one of the aims of her new charitable organisation, SOUL (Sources of Unconditional Love). Launched on International Women’s Day, a few months after the United Nations announced gender equality as one of its global goals, SOUL’s feelgood aims are to replace discrimination and prejudice against girls and women with respect and empowerment.

Despite legislation, quotas, political correctness, airtime and the Spice Girls, in New Zealand one in five women have experienced discrimination, and women earn, on average, 88 cents to the dollar compared to men.

“The suffragette movement was over 100 years ago and still women don’t get equal pay,” she says. “How bizarre is that?”

Bartlett spent two years trying to work out the social area with the greatest need.

“There are all these issues — family violence, poverty, suicide, and I came to the conclusion that underneath all of that, people felt discriminated against... girls feel pressures through social media, that they don’t fit the mould and they’re in a sub group. What happens to girls who wear a head scarf at school? They get completely left out of the whole scene.”

Research has shown that those most affected by discrimination in New Zealand are female, starting with young girls in primary school. Data from Statistics New Zealand shows that 24 per cent of women aged between 15-34 have been unfairly treated because of the group they belong to, or seem to belong to.

Part of the philosophy of SOUL is not to dwell on the discrimination itself but to focus on positive, fun ways to overcome it. Bartlett says she’s found it interesting that women have responded to the idea with enthusiasm and a sense of relief that someone is tackling the issue, whereas men have tended to ask why she was bothering.

“It’s so pervasive that people don’t even realise, and so subtle,” she says, pointing out that the prejudice women in New Zealand face is not as obvious as what you might find in countries such as India or Saudi Arabia.

Bartlett is in the process of contacting schools to invite girls from all walks of life into “SOUL Circles”, groups that can meet regularly, on or offline. With the guidance of mentors, the hope is that they’ll build trust and friendship while engaging in activities and learning life skills.

They’ll also create videos that challenge prejudices and discriminatory behaviour in others. In an early production, smiling girls of various ethnicities hold up placards with inspiring messages, such as “Be your own role model” suggesting that the first step to dealing with discrimination is not to repeat the behaviour.

“They’re positive and upbeat,” Bartlett explains, “to make people laugh at their own biases, rather than guilt-trip them.”
SOUL needs to raise $8000 per programme, per year. Group participants can then “pay it forward” by running fundraising campaigns. Helping the cause are “Soulmodels” such as Lorde, Lydia Ko and other young women who have risen above social or cultural constraints.

Bartlett concedes it won’t be easy to measure the impact of SOUL but she’s driven by the prospect of isolated young people finding friendship. Through StarJam, the kids who had never been invited to a sleep-over or birthday party would suddenly find themselves a raft of new friends.

Focusing on females makes sense, she says, “because if we fixed it for girls, it would be fixed for everyone”.

“If we can empower girls to know what’s acceptable and what’s not, and give them the power so that they know how to deal with those situations, not tell them how to do it but give them the confidence to say, ‘Look, I don’t have to put up with that, I can say no to that’, then that will cause a shift for fathers, brothers, uncles too. That’s going to be a little bit intangible, but I truly believe this has a possiblity of making a big difference in the way people think.”

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