Jessica Dewhurst

An ‘everyday activist’ igniting extraordinary change

“In a country where the rescue rate for human trafficking victims is less than 1%,
two 17-year-old girls who knew their human rights managed to save their classmate’s life, plus take down four human traffickers,” says Jessica Dewhurst, founder of
The Justice Desk human rights organisation.

“This is just one of the examples of the incredible things that can happen when people are empowered with knowledge about their rights, and how to implement them!”

As a teen, Jessica Dewhurst was furious. She despised the inequality she saw in the world around her, and the violation of human rights she encountered every day. In what was meant to be a ‘free’ and liberated Rainbow Nation, all she saw was the growing hunger and despair of those still held down by the systemic injustice and inequality that remained from the apartheid regime and continued to thrive in the ‘new’ South Africa. One day, during yet another session of detention, a teacher told her; “Jessica, you can continue being angry with the world, or use your privilege for something better. What are you going to do?”

It was this moment that ignited a passion for change inside a 14-year-old girl, and ultimately led to the formation of one of the country’s most powerful human rights organisations, The Justice Desk.

“Our family always did a lot of charity work,” recalls Jessica who grew up in a Catholic household. “After Nelson Mandela was elected President, we were meant to be living in the ‘Rainbow Nation’, but I couldn’t see all these human rights that everyone was talking about. All I could see was poverty, and sickness, and lack of access to basic resources.”

“South Africa is not yet ‘changed’. While we all have the right to vote, we don’t all have the right to choose what to do with our lives, or what resources and opportunities we have access to.”

“It’s easier than you think to make small changes.
And those small changes can grow and grow and
grow and create something really incredible!”

Bridging the gap between human rights and the people who are affected


Jessica turned her energy towards social outreach and it was while helping out at camps for vulnerable youth that she realised something was missing in the greater communities.
“I knew that we would never be able to create sustainable change without teaching the youth and the people we served about their human rights.”
“I was seeing the same kids come back to the camp year after year. The same kids with the same issues. They were still going back to abusive homes, lack of resources, and ineffective education systems,” she recalls.

“I felt that if we truly believed in the rights of the kids, we should be infuriated! Their lives weren’t any different before or after they came to the camps. Something more was needed. That’s when I decided that the law, the United Nations, and advocacy was the direction I wanted to go.”
But Jessica realised that even the success in lobbying at the UN wasn’t creating lasting change for the people in South African communities who really needed it. “We were changing laws, but nothing changed in the lives of everyday people, even if the laws were changed,” says Jessica.

“We have some of the best laws in the world, but they mean nothing if they are not understood, implemented, upheld, and protected by people in their communities themselves. So that’s why I left that work and started The Justice Desk, to rather empower people through justice work to make those laws a reality in their lives and communities.”


Building The Justice Desk


Two years into studying towards her ultimate master’s degree in social development (specialising in human rights and anti-human trafficking) at UCT, Jessica set up the organisation.
“I didn’t want to start yet another NGO,” says Jessica. “But I truly believe that The Justice Desk bridges a major gap between the country’s laws and policies, and the people who are still experiencing so much injustice and abuse of their human rights.”

“Lawyers and politicians can’t be the only ones tasked with the responsibility of changing the world,” says Jessica. “Mothers, fathers, teachers, aunties, community leaders, and kids are everywhere. They are the everyday people, the everyday advocates. They are in the best position to protect human rights and implement them.”

“The Justice Desk was formed to empower the real Changemakers of South Africa so that they can effect change and defend it.”


Identifying the need for a focus on mental health


As the organisation grew from strength to strength, Jessica took on more and more responsibility. Not only was she continuing to study, but she also took on some of the organisation’s most traumatic cases, and continued to lobby against injustice.

However, four years ago, she suffered a mental health break. Diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and chronic depression, Jessica was forced to confront her limitations, and allow the powerful team that she had built up around her to shoulder more responsibility within the organisation.

“A lot of incredible people helped me during this time and got me and the organisation where we are today,” recalls Jessica. “And this is why a focus on mental health is now an absolutely essential part of The Justice Desk organisation.”


People are a constant inspiration


Any time things start to get too much, I go and spent time with our communities in Langa, Nyanga, Khayelitsha, and Bonteheuwel,” says Jessica. “It’s here that I always come to the same conclusion; We have way more good than bad in this country. We have an amazing capacity to love and love fiercely. South African mothers are on a whole different level! The sheer sacrifice and care they give to our young people, and the resilience they have is incredible.”
“If we, as South Africans, could spend more time focussing on the strengths that we share as people, instead of our differences, we would be blown away.”
“Our young people in particular look at boundaries and confines and laugh in the face of them. They are so creative, enthusiastic, inspiring. They have the audacity to go for their dreams!”


How two schoolgirls took down human traffickers


While Jessica has countless stories of how The Justice Desk organisation has helped empower citizens to exercise their human rights, one story stands out in particular.
“We run a Youth Ambassadors project where we educate kids, parents, and teachers about their basic human rights, and we encourage the youth to share their knowledge with their communities,” says Jessica.
“In a township in Kimberley, we received information from two girls in the local school to say that they were suspicious about the fact that some of their fellow schoolgirls had recently ‘run away’.”
Shocked by what they heard, The Justice Desk implemented training on the signs of human trafficking and various prevention strategies. The two schoolgirls took it upon themselves to write out the information and distribute it to their community members.
They even managed to acquire an old cell phone and SIM card, and encouraged members of the community to share any suspicious activity on their informal ‘hotline’.

“Within a few days, the hotline had received hundreds of tips and calls from the community,” says Jessica. “They were able to go to the police with a description of a suspicious vehicle, licence plate, and location. It resulted in the police arresting four confirmed human traffickers!”
But that is not all. Two months later, a girl was snatched and thrown into a van right outside the school.
Once again, the schoolgirls jumped into action and spread the word to the community who implemented their anti-trafficking strategy. They put together various teams consisting of a police officer, parents, community members, and social workers and spread out across the town. They visited taxi ranks and bus stops and all the places where groups of people congregated and asked for assistance.
Within 24-hours the kidnapped girl was found and saved.
“This is in a country where the rescue rate for human trafficking victims is less than 1%,” says Jessica.
“Two 17-year-old girls who knew their human rights managed to save their classmate’s life and take down four human trafficking perpetrators.”
“This is just one of the examples of the things that can happen when people are empowered with knowledge about their rights,
and how to implement them!”

Changemakers are ‘everyday activists’


Changemakers and ‘everyday activists’ are the ‘everyday’ people like you and me who wake up and stand for what is right.
“We’ve been taught to think that activism is a bad thing! But it is not. It’s also about standing up for something you believe in and standing up for our fellow citizens in whatever way we can,” says Jessica. “From how much you pay your staff to what products you buy, your words, thoughts, deeds. Consider everything you do and ask yourself – ‘is this in the name of justice’?”
“Everyday people CAN change the world. You don’t need to be a superhero to make a difference,” says Jessica.

How can I become a Changemaker and an ‘everyday activist’?


Jessica offers three steps to effecting change in your own life and your own community.

Continually educate yourself
“Learn about the issues in the community around you and find out what is actually happening in the lives of the people you interact with. Systems of oppression and injustice exist everywhere,” says Jessica.
“Don’t be afraid to take a hard look at yourself and the way you treat people. Reflecting on ourselves is healthy. We are all products of our own context. We can’t choose our context, but we CAN choose what to do with it. Perhaps there’s something in your own life you need to change?”

Go out and meet people who are not like you.
“If your best friends, your doctor, your colleagues, and your peers all look like you and enjoy the same things you do, you’re doing it wrong…” says Jessica. “We will never see the beauty in our diversity until we’re exposed to it. We fear what we don’t know, but we learn to love what we witness. The world thinks we should be enemies because of our diversity. By meeting, learning to love and respecting people who are different to us, we’re already smashing boundaries!”

Do what is just
“If what you’re doing does not support human rights, don’t do it,” says Jessica. “It’s about taking a look at everything you do, and considering how it impacts others. How do you refer to women? What are you saying in WhatsApp groups? How are you treating your co-workers? What products are you buying/supporting, and are they ethical?”
“It’s easier than you think to make small changes. And those small changes can grow and grow and grow and create something really incredible!”