Scotsman obituaries: Emma Ritch, women’s rights campaigner

Emma Ngaire Ritch FRSA, women’s rights campaigner. Born: 8 December 1976 in Berkshire.Died: 9 July 2021 in Glasgow, aged 44

Emma Ritch advised the Scottish Government on equality and human rights (Picture: Beth Chalmers)
Emma Ritch advised the Scottish Government on equality and human rights (Picture: Beth Chalmers)

When Emma Ritch decided that a career in IT was not for her it was technology’s loss but, ultimately, an enormous gain for another very diverse field of work – the women’s rights movement.

As a young student she had initially studied English Language and Literature, a natural choice for a girl who always had a deep love of books and reading. But her father was a lecturer in computer science and she had also shown interest in technology as a child, even keying in some aspects of her father’s PhD thesis when she was still at primary school.

So, when she discovered there were few opportunities for English literature graduates that appealed to her, she did a Masters in IT and management, thinking both disciplines could be useful for any future career. That experience convinced her that working in IT would definitely not be an attractive prospect and she subsequently embarked on an alternative career path.

It was to take her to prominence in the world of equality and human rights, leading Scotland’s feminist policy and advocacy body Engender and sharing her knowledge and expertise with the Scottish government. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said simply she was a force for good, “a passionate advocate for women’s rights and a champion of justice and equality”.

Born in Berkshire, the daughter of Valerie and Tom Docker, she moved to New Zealand aged two when her father became a lecturer in computer science at Massey University in Palmerston North. Her mother had grown up in New Zealand and Emma and younger siblings Harriet and Thom enjoyed the outdoor Kiwi lifestyle, living in the small farming village of Ashhurst in the Manawatu area of the North Island.

She was a bright child who could read and write early, resulting in her jumping up a year when she started at Ashhurst School, a move with which she coped well. Her love of literature was lifelong and, with her brother and sister, she would often stage plays they had written, performing for their parents in the family sitting room, the programme written and delivered by Emma prior to the performance.

Thanks to their father’s interest in computers they had early editions of computer games and she developed good keyboard skills, helping with her father’s thesis when she was only ten or eleven. Aged 12 when her family returned to the UK, she attended Buckingham’s Royal Latin School, learned to play the flute and became a football fan, following her father’s team, Chelsea.

Her passion for reading and language undoubtedly influenced her decision to study English and when she arrived at Glasgow University in 1995 she not only fell in love with Scotland but with her future husband, Kenny Ritch, then an 18-year-old fellow first year. Her charm, wit and intelligence, coupled with a magnetic, easy confidence captured his heart and they married around five years later.

After university she became a case manager at the Big Lottery Fund, managing grants for various projects, mainly sports-related, and in 2005 moved to Close the Gap, a partnership initiative working to address the gender pay gap.

It was her first professional feminist role but she already had a strong interest in feminism, fairness and equality and had seen activism at work through her parents: her mother was a founding member of an Amnesty International group in New Zealand and during apartheid her father marched in protest against the South African Rugby tour of the country.

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Flame-haired – a legacy of her great, great grandmother who emigrated from Ireland to New Zealand – and charismatic, she found now her forte as a hugely effective champion of numerous causes. At Close the Gap her influence galvanised a range of organisations into action, including large corporate firms, public bodies and trade unions, and she spoke out on topics such as hate crime, access to safe, legal abortion, healthcare and equal representation in politics. She later became a trustee and a key player overseeing its transition to an independent charity.

During her nine years at Close the Gap she had also served on the Engender board as a vice-convenor and in 2013 she moved to Engender full-time. There she tackled another wide range of issues. As executive director she led collaboration with other campaigners in women’s, equalities and human rights sectors and was responsible for engaging with the Scottish and UK governments, the United Nations and the European Union, through the European Women’s Lobby.

Her particular interests included women and the economy and violence against women. She gave evidence to the UN on the UK’s work to implement human rights treaties, particularly the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Violence Against Women, and was instrumental in advocacy leading to the Scottish Government’s commitment to incorporate the convention into Scot’s Law. More recently she focused on the way Covid-19 had affected women’s lives disproportionately.

She also sat on various external working groups including the First Minister’s Advisory Council on Women and Girls, the joint strategic board of Equally Safe and the advisory group of the Scottish Women’s rights Centre. She also chaired Rape Crisis Scotland and the board of the Human Rights Consortium Scotland and had latterly been appointed to the independent working group on misogyny and criminal justice in Scotland. A Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts since 2010, in 2019 she was inducted into the Saltire Society’s Outstanding Women of Scotland community which recognises inspiring women and their achievements.

After her sudden death, appreciations flowed in praising her vibrancy, wit, razor-sharp judgment and steely dedication. Engender led the tributes saying: “Her intelligence and insight, kindness, and passionate feminism have made Scotland a better place for women, as well as enriching the lives of those who knew her personally.”

She is survived by her husband Kenny.

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