Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance 

Jill Stockwell is a social anthropologist with expertise in the impact of conflict on individuals and societies. Her incredible work explores women’s experiences of memory, trauma and oral testimony in post-conflict environments. In particular, women’s affective memories as a way of arriving at a more complex, layered and dynamic picture of transitional justice processes within a variety of historical and geographical contexts. She believes that exploring women’s experiences and memories of mass violence and/or displacement stimulates global conversations and strengthens critical thinking on historically silenced versions of history.

Jill has spent many years working at a grassroots level within INGOs and NGOs in many different international contexts from Myanmar, to the Republic of Congo, to Kosovo to Argentina, dealing with a variety of issues ranging from human rights to HIV/AIDS behavioural research.

She is the Founder & CEO of Cultural Memory, and online story-telling project that brings into the public sphere first-hand accounts from the women who lived through historical events. 

Tell us a little bit about the foundation of your company, Cultural Memory, and what you do day-to-day?

I set up Cultural Memory following the completion of my doctoral research into women’s experiences of traumatic memory in post-conflict environments. As part of my research, I spent a year living in Argentina with my husband and 2-year-old daughter, talking to women about their experiences of political and state violence during the 1970s and 1980s.

I’m a Social Anthropologist and for some years, I worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), recording human rights abuses in the aftermath of conflict. Women were the ones who engaged in giving me their oral testimony because the majority of men had been imprisoned or killed in the communities in which I worked. As the women—often surrounded by their children—told me their painful stories, the powerful role they played in the transmission of their memories of violence to the next generation became very clear. However, despite their central role in shaping and influencing their society’s future identity, women’s memories are regularly overlooked in official versions of a society’s history.

Cultural Memory is a work in progress. Through it I want to highlight women’s experiences and memories of human rights abuses, mass violence and displacement, as a way of stimulating global conversations on what are, usually, historically silenced versions of history. In particular, I’m endeavouring to create educational, research and public awareness-raising resources that encourage reflection about those who flee persecution, and make us more conscious of the vulnerability of those who are fleeing mass violence in their countries.


What’s something new you’ve learned about women since working there?

Women are often the emotional leaders in a household when things are going wrong. For example, I have met many women who endured and then managed to flee incredible violence in the Republic of Congo, who were holding their families together (sometimes with their husbands in tow) through their resourcefulness, sheer persistence and incredible strength. Women can be fearless particularly when they are protecting their children. I spoke to many mothers in Argentina who told me they lost all their fear the day their son or daughter was taken away by the military. At one point in time, these women were ostracised and called crazy by Argentine society for demanding the military tell them what they did with their loved ones. But these women refused to bow to public pressure and have continued fighting for memory truth and justice for the last 40 years.


What do you think is the simplest thing that can be done to achieve equality in the workplace? 

Rather than talking about equality in terms of gender in the workplace, I see another issue of equality in terms of the different skill sets of those who may not be a traditional fit in an organisation. Managers need to become much better listeners and to dig a bit deeper into their employees’ work pasts – there can be a whole lot of untapped potential and knowledge that can be completely overlooked all because management makes superficial assumptions about their staffs’ capabilities.


Have there been any moments early in your career that surprised you in terms of how you were treated in the workplace? 

For many years, I looked much younger than my years and was treated as such. This all turned around when I gained my PhD. Everybody began to treat me differently with a Dr. in front of my name. It’s still not something I’m comfortable with claiming though!


What advice would you give to young women forging their careers?

Make sure you pick a good, solid first degree if you do pursue a university degree because at some point in life, you may have to resort back to it. It’s a bonus if it equips you with a specific skill.


What advice would you give to your 20-year old self?

Don’t choose economics as your first degree!


Which women inspire you, and why?

Actually nobody well-known. Those that truly inspire me are the women who have lost a child due to armed conflict who find ways of moving forward with their lives. Some of the women I have met who have experienced this are so philosophical about their lives: it is beyond belief. They are my biggest reminder to not sweat the small stuff.