Jessica Dewhurst (25) is an Mzansi Top 100 of 2017 leader, a human rights defender, ERI UN Youth Ambassador, and a Queen’s Young Leader.
But more importantly, Dewhurst is a South African woman whose life is dedicated to readdressing social inequalities.
Dewhurst has worked and traveled to many countries across the world with a sole purpose- to educate others about human rights. Among her many achievements, Dewhurst is the founder of an award-winning human rights organization, called The Justice Desk, which focuses on educating, advocating and equipping youth, government, civil society and vulnerable groups across South Central Africa.
The Justice desk organization has been recognized internationally for its efforts to bring about social change by influential people such as the Queen of England, Prince Harry, David Beckham, South African president Jacob Zuma, Prince Edward, Countess Sophie, and many others.
Dewhurst’s dream to educate others about their human rights was ignited when she was 18 years old. She was attacked by four men – one of whom was eventually arrested. After a few months, she was asked to attend the court hearing and face the man who once hurt her.
Dewhurst recounts her ordeal:
“When I saw him I was shocked because he didn’t look the same. He was so skinny I could see his bones, he smelt like nothing you could ever imagine. His clothes were torn, and he was terrified. I have no idea what came over me, but all I wanted to do was hug him. All I wanted to do was say that I was sorry for the life he had to live.
This man was born in a broken-down shack in Khayelitsha. His father left when he was five and his mother was unemployed. She was a refugee and many people turned their backs on her. He didn’t get an education because his school was overcrowded and he couldn’t afford books or a uniform. His home frequently collapsed and didn’t have anything like water, electricity or security. He was continually harassed by gangs threatening to kill him if he didn’t join them, and because he didn’t finish school, he couldn’t find a job.
When he was sick he couldn’t go to the hospital because he had no form of identification, and he had to wake up, sick, hungry and tired, at 4 am every morning to make the long trip to the city to beg for money so he could feed his mother, who was dying of HIV/Aids.
He saw the bright lights of the city, and smart cars as they drove past and he wondered what was wrong with him? Why was he not loved or important enough, or valued enough to be like them?
He begged, and begged, and his dignity was chipped at again and again – until one day, he snapped and he did something terrible. But what dawned on me in that moment, was that not for one second did I believe that HE was the problem. His actions were wrong, yes, but this man was not his actions. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning what he did – what he did was wrong – but not for one second did I believe that he was the problem.
He was a young man who had grown up unprotected, forgotten, abandoned, forced to live in unimaginable conditions. Here was a young man, who grew up having his rights violated on a daily basis, who was failed again and again by those who said they would protect the children of this country. We left him, hungry, uneducated, sick and abandoned – and then we blamed him for it.”
It was in that moment that she realized that she could no longer simply engage in charity work, handing out food, clothes, making children smile, and then sending them home.
“What was the point if I was sending them back to broken homes and dysfunctional communities where people had little to no respect for the rights and dignity of others?” asks Dewhurst.
She realized that her charity efforts of handing out food to the needy and making them smile were only a temporary solution. Dewhurst realized that the core to solving the problem on a grassroots level was through equipping them with something someone couldn’t steal from them- JUSTICE.
Dewhurst stopped giving clothes and food to the poor, and posed this brave question instead: Why are people poor in the first place?
This is how her organization and mission of justice started. A commitment to reawakening a social consciousness within our country. Where her organization targets the very communities that our children are growing up in – to make sure that they are supported, loved and have access to the services, resources, and opportunities they deserve.
What is inequality?
“Inequality is the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities. Injustice is when someone is unable to access their fundamental human rights. In South Africa, this is usually a result of inequality,” answers Dewhurst.
Societal structures often favor certain groups of people, making it easier for them to access opportunities and succeed. People may be discriminated against on the basis of their race, gender, ethnic origin, nationality, religion or other factors.
This inequality can be so deeply embedded that we see it as normal or acceptable. The denial of human rights deprives individuals, families, and communities of developing their capacities, accessing opportunities and services. The denial of human rights not only inhibits their ability to thrive but sometimes even to survive.
Dewhurst urges everyone to familiarize themselves with the 30 fundamental human rights. “How are we supposed to protect them if we are not aware of them?” asks Dewhurst.
Comment by UN Human Rights Chief #Zeid on the situation in Catalonia, Spain. “I am very disturbed by the violence in Catalonia on Sunday. With hundreds of people reported injured, I urge the Spanish authorities to ensure thorough, independent and impartial investigations into all acts of violence. Police responses must at all times be proportionate and necessary. I firmly believe that the current situation should be resolved through political dialogue, with full respect for democratic freedoms.” Click in our bio to learn more.
Focusing on the problem, rather than the solution
Another challenge she faces is that many people tend to focus on the problem, rather than the solution. Dewhurst's advice to millennials is that never let yourself get lost in all the ‘noise’ that surrounds development work. There will always be those who would rather shout out about all that is going wrong in our country and debate for years on how we can fix things. Although engaging in such debates is useful, you should not lose yourself in them.
Instead of letting these noises affect me, I was advised to rather head out into the real world and learn from the people living, working and physically fighting against violence, injustice, and intolerance on the ground. Actions speak louder than words and she has learned to ignore the often distracting commentary in order to rather spend her time in our communities physically working, engaging and learning.
“Go and get your hands dirty! This strategy has helped me thrive and make a real impact. Remember, we work to be a part of the solution, not the problem,” added Dewhurst.