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
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
“AS A WOMAN, I FELT LIKE I WANTED TO HELP OTHER WOMEN—IT’S JUST A NATURAL FEELING”
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