A Voice for the Voiceless

Eirliani Abdul Rahman taps an international network of people and organisations to draw attention to the issue of child sexual abuse globally and to help survivors.

BY TAN HWEE HWEE
PHOTOS JUSTIN LOH, EIRLIANI ABDUL RAHMAN

Eirliani Abdul Rahman is an advocate for child sexual abuse survivors worldwide.

W

hen Eirliani Abdul Rahman was 16, she watched a documentary on dowry death, in which young women in South Asia were murdered or driven to suicide by husbands and in-laws trying to extort an increased dowry.

Says the former diplomat: “It made me angry as these women were voiceless. I was particularly struck by one scene in which a woman, in her dying moments, described what had happened to her. I was determined to stand up for the voiceless and do what I can.”

She volunteered whenever she could, from teaching English to children at a Vietnamese refugee camp in Singapore, which has since closed, to helping out in a soup kitchen during her university days in London.

Eirliani, now 40, has held on to this commitment to be a voice for the voiceless. In 2015, she left a successful career at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to focus on helping abused children. Prior to her career change, she was at the ministry for 10 years, serving in Berlin as First Secretary (Political), and then as Political Counsellor in New Delhi.

“I think growing up in multicultural Singapore has given me the tools to negotiate between different cultures, to remain open to new ideas and infl uences, and to embrace different peoples and their different approaches to life.”

Eirliani Abdul Rahman, campaigns director for Kailash Satyarthi Childrenʼs Foundation

She says: “I wanted to fight for child rights and give abused children a voice. I have a lot of empathy for abused children – I really feel their pain.”

The opportunity to lend her voice to the voiceless arose in 2014 while she was working in New Delhi. An Indian member of parliament had invited Eirliani for coffee with Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights and education advocate leading the fight against child labour. Over 35 years, Satyarthi rescued more than 83,000 children from child slavery and poverty – an achievement that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

During the meeting, Eirliani shared with Satyarthi her passion for helping abused children and asked if there was an opportunity to work with him.

Satyarthi then invited her to join his nonprofit organisation, the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, which aims to end child exploitation. Eirliani is now the foundation’s director of campaigns in New Delhi. She lobbies against child labour practices and other forms of exploitation against children.

NEGOTIATING CULTURES
One of her most successful projects was a social media campaign in September 2015 which raised awareness of sexual abuse of children. Fronted by Satyarthi, the campaign got people to post selfies of themselves with palms painted red. The campaign reached more than 16 million people around the world over six weeks via social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Working with international partners like Facebook as well as civil society organisations and bloggers to raise awareness of the issue globally, she believes that being Singaporean has given her an edge in her advocacy work. She says: “I think growing up in multicultural Singapore has given me the tools to negotiate between different cultures, to remain open to new ideas and influences, and to embrace different peoples and their different approaches to life.

“I speak several languages. I can converse in Malay, English and German fluently. I have a decent command of Russian, and a rudimentary understanding of French and Hindi. I was taught Arabic as a child. Language is, for me, a key to getting closer to a people and their culture.”

In between her advocacy work, Eirliani takes time out to train for her expedition to the South Pole, such as trekking in the Zanskar valley in Ladakh, India.

RAISING AWARENESS
Eirliani’s desire to reach out to more child abuse victims also led to her cofounding Singapore-based non-profit organisation Youths, Adult Survivors & Kin In Need (YAKIN). She did this with Professor Daniel Fung, who is chairman of the Institute of Mental Health’s medical board, in December 2015.

YAKIN supports and protects victims of child abuse through programmes such as rock climbing courses and creative writing workshops. She has plans to expand YAKIN’s work internationally, growing it to support survivors online and to prevent the abuse from happening in the first place through raising awareness of issues such as online safety.

She says: “I am taking it one day at a time. My ambition is to see open discussions in society about child abuse and, more importantly, its prevention. I hope to get everyone to play an active part, be it as a parent, school teacher, social worker, volunteer or simply as a concerned family member.”

Eirliani is also working with Harper Collins India to publish a collection of stories from real-life child sexual abuse survivors from around the world. The people in her book are of different nationalities and religions. She says: “This made me realise that sexual abuse happens to everyone, from all backgrounds.”

 

Lana (not her real name), one of the child abuse survivors whom Eirliani interviewed for the book, says that participating in the project has been a healing process for her. The 51-yearold woman, who lives in Germany, says: “Speaking with Eirliani about my experience helped me untangle the emotional knots and overcome the shame by offering me a voice.

“Eirliani made such a huge impression on me with her gentle and compassionate yet highly energetic manner. She invited me to claim my own trauma-riddled life. I now believe my voice is worth hearing. For this, I am eternally grateful to her.”

Eirliani’s next major project is to go on an expedition to the South Pole in December 2017 to raise awareness of child sexual abuse. If she succeeds, she will be the first woman in Singapore to complete the expedition by foot. She hopes that the trip will garner media attention so she can use the opportunity to raise awareness of the issue that is close to her heart.

She says: “I hope that my trip to Antarctica will put Singapore and also the issue of child abuse on the map. We can do anything once we set our minds to it.”


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