In just five years, Women Help­ing Women has helped 42,000 fam­i­lies af­fected by do­mes­tic abuse. Co-founder Mah­naz Lee talks to Chloe Street about the char­ity and its plans

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

Mah­naz Lee on plans for the char­ity she founded five years ago, Women Help­ing Women, which has al­ready helped 42,000 fam­i­lies af­fected by do­mes­tic abuse

Hong kong’s glossy, af­flu­ent sur­face hides an un­der­belly of phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse that af­flicts an alarm­ing num­ber of fam­i­lies. Some 3,197 cases of spousal vi­o­lence were re­ported by the Hong Kong Fam­ily Wel­fare So­ci­ety last year, 83 per cent of which in­volved vi­o­lence against women. The fig­ure rep­re­sents an alarm­ing 24 per cent in­crease on the num­ber of cases re­ported in 2010. More­over, of­fi­cial fig­ures on do­mes­tic vi­o­lence are in­vari­ably a frac­tion of the true num­ber, as many vic­tims are too em­bar­rassed or fear­ful to come for­ward. In 2013, for ex­am­ple, a quar­ter of 402 women sur­veyed by the Hong Kong Women’s Coali­tion on Equal Op­por­tu­ni­ties said they had suf­fered do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, but fewer than one in 10 of them had told po­lice.

When Mah­naz Lee be­came aware of the statis­tics, she felt im­pas­sioned to do some­thing to help th­ese women. In 2010, with her close friend Patti Ho, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Adler Jew­ellery, she founded the char­ity Women Help­ing Women (WHW). “As a woman, I felt like I wanted to help other women—it’s just a nat­u­ral feel­ing—so the idea started from there,” she re­calls.

She and Patti ral­lied friends and busi­ness con­tacts to their cause, gath­er­ing a group of high-fly­ing fe­male phi­lan­thropists united in


their goal to help women in need. A guid­ing prin­ci­ple of the char­ity is that WHW does not spend any of the money it raises on over­heads. It operates out of the of­fices of Patti and Mah­naz’s busi­nesses, and the mem­bers ab­sorb all the run­ning costs them­selves, from the cof­fee drunk dur­ing their meet­ings to the ex­penses of events they or­gan­ise.

Ini­tially, the WHW team funded all the char­ity’s ini­tia­tives with their own money. The size and scope of their projects has steadily in­creased and now they also source financial sup­port from their per­sonal net­works and by host­ing fundrais­ing events, such as the an­nual char­ity ball. This year’s event, spon­sored by Shang­hai Tang and to take place on Novem­ber 14 at the Is­land Shangri-la, will cel­e­brate the char­ity’s 5th an­niver­sary with a China theme.

WHW reaches those it aims to help by cre­at­ing and fund­ing spe­cific pro­grammes in con­junc­tion with other rep­utable or­gan­i­sa­tions, such as the Hong Kong Fam­ily Wel­fare So­ci­ety, Car­i­tas and Har­mony House. This al­lows it to re­duce op­er­at­ing costs and ben­e­fit from the knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence of th­ese longer es­tab­lished bod­ies.

The char­ity has worked, for ex­am­ple, along­side Car­i­tas to im­ple­ment a pro­gramme to help sin­gle moth­ers build in­de­pen­dence and their own sup­port net­works to in­te­grate prop­erly into the com­mu­nity. It spon­sored a ded­i­cated fe­male floor at Evan­gel Chil­dren’s Home for Youth, and has also funded a par­ent­ing project with Har­mony House to em­power women from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds to be ef­fec­tive par­ents, and to pro­mote mu­tual sup­port among moth­ers in the com­mu­nity.

An­other good ex­am­ple of WHW’S col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach is its forth­com­ing part­ner­ship with the Women’s Foundation. Next year, the two groups will launch an ed­u­ca­tional cam­paign for school-age girls about vi­o­lence against women. WHW will pro­vide the fund­ing for the pro­gramme, while the foundation, which has ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in schools, will im­ple­ment it.

WHW cur­rently com­prises a board of four plus 16 other mem­bers, a stream­lined struc­ture that Mah­naz says func­tions well. Mah­naz and Patti are al­ways on the look­out for women with the in­cli­na­tion and means to join their or­gan­i­sa­tion, but their as­pi­ra­tions for the fu­ture are not so much fo­cused on grow­ing the size of WHW, but on main­tain­ing the ef­fi­cacy and im­pact of its pro­grammes. “If we must have an of­fice and staff, then it won’t be the same for­mula, so we will not look to do that,” says Mah­naz. “The five-year plan is to main­tain and sus­tain be­cause what we are do­ing works.”

The WHW logo is the lo­tus flower, whose bud grows up through muddy ponds to emerge from the wa­ter and open into a beau­ti­ful bloom—sym­bolic of the trans­for­ma­tive ef­fect of the char­ity’s work. Mah­naz de­scribes vis­it­ing cen­tres and “see­ing women re­ally hurt, not just sad but phys­i­cally very abused… When you see that, it’s dev­as­tat­ing.” She notes the amaz­ing im­pact of a WHW pro­gramme in which the chil­dren of such women at­tend ther­a­peu­tic art classes. “In the be­gin­ning the draw­ings are dark and sad… By the end they draw flow­ers, sun­shine and rain­bows.”

WHW keeps those draw­ings as a re­minder of the im­por­tance of its mis­sion, a mis­sion Mah­naz de­scribes as “car­ry­ing a torch to say that we as women stand for some­thing.” There’s no doubt that she and her team will con­tinue to trans­form the lives of many fam­i­lies “one woman at a time.”

FAM­ILY AF­FAIR Mah­naz Lee and the chil­dren of abused women play a game about fam­ily har­mony

char­i­ta­ble sym­bio­sis WHW part­ners with other phil­an­thropic or­gan­i­sa­tions, such as the Hong Kong Fam­ily Wel­fare So­ci­ety

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