Women Who Lead – Leading the South Pole Challenge – Eirliani Abdul Rahman

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Hi, welcome to this week’s program. Earlier today, I have this really great conversation with Eirliani Abdul Rahman. She was talking to me from New Delhi, India, and I was calling her from Toronto, Canada. It wasn’t nine and a half hour time zone difference that got to us however, it was the recording quality.


As I listened back  after my time with her, I was concerned that my audience would not be able to hear the absolute strength of what she had to tell us. The recording was affected by wi-fi interruptions and indeed just cyberspace in general. I did feel though that Eirliani’s story is too important to just say, “Well, cyberspace didn’t cooperate so let’s just put that to rest. It needed to be told.” And so I made the unusual decision for me to tell the story in the second person. I am going to tell her story. Now let me be clear, this by no means is the perfect fix. You will miss out on listening to the strength of her character and the passion that she holds for what she believes in. This is terribly unfortunate. I do hope though by the covering the highlights that I have garnered from my time with her that some part of this incredible woman’s halfway will be understood and your support for what she is about to do will be garnered.

In January next year 2017, Eirliani is going is going to be the first Singaporean to trek by foot to the South Pole. She is going to cover 1,100 kilometers walking, pulling a 60-kilogram sled full of her equipment and supplies. Now I want you to think about this: she’s going to be travelling around minus 30 degrees centigrade. That’s going to be the night time; the balmy daytime in which she’s going to be maneuvering is between minus 24 degrees centigrade and minus 15. You know, it doesn’t really matter when you think about it the chemical heaters on hot water bottles that she’s going to be sledging along. It’s going to be about how do you endure day after day for 60 days those types of conditions and simply the drive that one has to have to keep going day after day, after day.

Now, Eirliani is not going to be the first Singaporean woman to reach the South Pole. That was done actually in 2009 when Madame Sophia Peng made it, but this time she did it through the combination of skiing and climbing. Joining her on this amazing journey is her Lithuanian rock climbing partner, Miss Ruta Sidlauskaite and their guide Sarah McNair-Landry. Now Sarah is the youngest person to have travelled to both the North and South Poles. So when you think about it, she’s going to have some really great support. But in total their team will be four, and those four will have to have an amazing set of connections to keep one another going as they make this significant trek to the South Pole. I found it interesting that when I asked her about the path that she was going to follow, she was very clear that she was going to follow the path of Robet Falcon Scott.

Now I didn’t know anything about the missions to the South Pole other than the ones that we all seem to know about. But in this case, Robert Falcon Scott was the second to reach the South Pole. The first was Roald Amundsen and he made it one month before Scott, Scott not knowing by any means in 1911 that anybody was ahead of him.  For Amundsen, he made it to the Pole and back to base camp. Scott was not as successful. While making it to the South Pole, he died on his way back to base camp. What I found was interesting in her selection of Scott’s route is that he knew that he was walking into death. He understood the consequences of the journeys that he had done to get to this point and what it meant to push forward. And yet his unwavering commitment to his goal, his passion for making good on his commitment was what filled him to reach the South Pole. I think it’s that kind of courage and that kind of amazing fortitude that Eirliani expressed in what she is training now for five days a week to get herself ready. The Physical preparation that Ruta and Eirliani are going through has been designed by one of the lead trainers of the special forces with the Indian army. This 12-week program that they do five days a week involves everything from pulling massive tires down streets and gales to carrying increasingly heavy backpacks as they run up and down stairs of the subway or simply climb massive ropes simply. I mean, I really struggled with rope climbing in my school days, and here we have this woman who is now an avid rock climber who up until a couple a years ago just claimed herself as a geek who preferred indoor activities. It is in fact the mental preparation that is so critical here. And I love the way that Eirliani explains that rock climbing is really like solving a puzzle on the wall where you put your feet and your mind. Your mind and body need to be united and sink with each other because if you’re not focused you’re going to fall, but if you’re not strong enough you’re still going to fall. And so it is that individual strength building that only can work when combined that Eirliani and Ruta are working on. Now, let me ask you this: what would be the reason that you would undertake such an arduous journey? I mean, for me, if the issue was related to changing fundamentally the mental health system in this country that I live in, then I probably would have the motivation to make such a trek. I don’t know if I would withstand the conditions under which Eirliani is moving, but I know that the system in Canada is so broken and I’ve worked deliciously at trying to change it without much success that I would be preparing to do whatever it took to raise awareness for how much we need to undo the current system and create something very different. In Eirliani’s case, what is calling her is sexual child abuse, abuse of children who are innocent and incapable of knowing what is going on around them. Eirliani has in fact worked and studied to understand the many, many adulthood effects that childhood sexual abuse can have. It’s interesting that she’s mentioned that men are really very key part who does not have the voice, the unscathed, the unaware than not knowing why in their later adulthood they have such trouble worth of relationships. In their own way of connecting with people, they feel enable and not capable of sustaining those relationships. It is for the voices of the adult survivors that Eirliani is undertaking this mission, and not only for them but to change the suicidal perspective that we have that it’s okay. And then we speak some incest that occurs in every country, but her particular focus is with those children in India. She is aware that many children are assaulted without even knowing if it’s right or if it’s wrong. They know no difference and they don’t know who to speak to. The anger that rises in them as they start to understand what has taken place is often towards a parent, who they believe understood all along that this type of incestual relationship was taking place and yet did nothing about it. The healing journey of which Eirliani documents and is a social advocate for is a powerful journey, the first step of which is coming to grips oneself with what has happened to face the situations that one has hidden for so many years and then try to understand what actually took place. The memories of these experiences become so vivid that it’s like reliving them again, and for many survivors this is the hardest part. These are memories that they have buried forever. And now as they start, and initiate and move through their healing process, they become avidly aware that every single element of that scene is completely recognizable to them from the color of the clothing to location of the furniture, everything is brought back to current memory. And so, as she has deeply understood this journey and has spoken to many, many, many others who have walked in this shoes, she’s aware that their voices have been hidden. And for this reason, she must make a very bold awareness campaign for people to become aware of the unspoken. Where Eirliani finds herself today may seem like the far cry from where she began, and yet she’s very clear that all of the career steps that she took led her to where she is today. They equipped her with not only the know-how but the network that she would so greatly depend on as she moved into the not for profit sector and started her own NGO. Let’s take us back to 1999 when she graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK, her Master of Science was in Public Admin and Public Policy. She had preceded that with University of Warwick where she graduated with a BA in Economics and Politics. We start see that this is a political animal that is starting to get her feet wet in what it really takes to navigate not just in the political arena but so importantly in the non-governmental organizations. After she left her university days, she spent some time at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). And there she completed a team study on the importance of an integrated and context sensitive approach when counseling Rwandan children with post-traumatic stress disorder and post-genocide. Indeed, a powerful experience that left an indelible imprint of how situations in one’s early childhood can never actually leave you, but then she did something quite interesting. She took a leap into the international enterprise of Singapore with the ministry of trade and industry. There where she was a senior officer where worked with a new profit-generating entity spun off from the organization called Global Business Insights. She got her hands really into it with the organized trade missions to Russia and Pakistan, which prepared her to join the Prime Minister of Pakistan in a Pakistan competitiveness program, where it dealt with oil field machinery and equipment and transportation clusters. Her partner was the Harvard Business School’s Professor Michael Porter. To be a student of Michael Porter in the era in which he was most famous must have been an incredible learning opportunity. It’s not just great mentorship that has been behind Eirliani’s success. She has managed to be a part of some absolutely intriguing initiatives. And for those of us who are looking at our career either backwards or forwards, it’s in those moments that we realized that we placed ourselves in the opportunity to say yes that we get the most benefit. In Eirlani’s case, she was a key driver for setting up the Middle East Institute in Singapore. That was because she was a member of the secretariat for the inaugural Asia-Middle East Dialogue held in Singapore in 2005. In 2007, she went to Berlin with the first secretary political of the Embassy of the Republic of Singapore. There she had a world stage; she was responsible for the inaugural youth Olympic game celebrations in Berlin in partnership with the organizing committee. After which, she moved on to New Delhi where again with the first secretary, she was part of the Singapore High Commission of the republic of Singapore. But it was when she joined Singapore Foreign Service in 2012, things became really interesting. And not just suggest other parts of your career or not, but here is where we see the origins of some of her current work.  She advised the Singapore government on the Indian public response to the little India riots of December 2013 and the infamous Nebbia rape case— case of a young woman who was gang raped on a bus and who later died. In footage from this case, one can see that her intention was to help her grieving mother know that it was okay, that she took care. Here was the abused taking care of her mother, telling her that things would be alright. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, she died.

In part, I’m sure being a part of such a defining moment where laws had been changed, where women have been encouraged throughout India to come forward and claim states of abuse, where Eirliani started to recognize the passion that she could no longer put in the backseat. It would be happenstance, a chance set of meetings that would be the doorway that Eirlani would walk through in order to take her to the space of her life in which she now finds herself. Back in October 2014, she was making her rounds saying goodbye to all of her colleagues and friends that she had met over her 10 years as a diplomat.

It was in one such meeting that she met with a member of the Indian parliament. She knew that she was passionate about her area of child abuse and knew just the person that she needed to talk to. Then found herself having tea with Kailash Satyarthi, he is the global advocate who has changed tens of thousands of children’s lives in his positioning against child labor and child slavery. If you remember back in 2014, he shared his prize with Malala Yousafzai. She was the Pakistani girl who is the youngest recipient of the award, who was speaking out for women and girls in terms of education. That chance meeting and that tea became the trigger for Eirliani to join with the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation. She became the campaign director for India.

Her job is to lead the NGO in eradicating child labor throughout India; it is chaired by Kailash Satyarthi. But that wasn’t enough for her; she needed to do her own thing. And so, she founded December of 2015, late last year YAKIN, Youth, Adult Survivors and Kin in Need. This is in Singapore and the NGO works on the issues of child protection including child online safety. She co-founded YAKIN with the chairman of the board, Singapore Institute of Mental Health, Daniel Fung. It is on behalf of YAKIN that Eirliani is making her quest to the South Pole, to raise awareness of child sexual abuse and the journey that they must take, but most importantly the reshaping of suicidal attitudes towards the silence that has prevailed and the acceptance that these types of acts can be done in secret. Along the way, Eirliani became involved with Save the Children Movement. She is the lead campaigner for #fullstop to #childsexualabuseinIndia.

Again, it is fronted by Kailash Satyarthi. This social media campaign is a powerful one. And, what I found absolutely fascinating was in a matter of six weeks, Eirliani learned to use Twitter. Up till then last summer, she had no idea how to use it. In fact she would say she was someone of a social media Luddite but she decided to learn. And in the true way in which Eirliani takes on tasks she learned how to use Twitter, and in six weeks she gained 16 million followers.  Not only does that tell you the savvy of this tweet gal, but it tells you the absolute spread and existence of child sexual abuse that exists throughout our world.

I urge you to go and check out the website Fullstop.org, that’s F-U-L-L-S-T-O-P-dot-O-R-G, it is a platform definitely for children victims and adult survivors of child sexual abuse. It’s not just for them, it’s also for their love ones and supporters to understand the process that they’re going to go through as they face those dark memories and take on the deep psychological implication that it has in later life. But it’s not just for those who are intimately involved with the issue that Fullstop is a powerful website. It’s also for you and me, people who have been fortunate not to have this as an integral part of our lives to learn about the scars, to understand the depth and breadth of this issue in our society.

I think that it gives me a deeper understanding of why the energy in Eirliani’s voice is there. Not only though is she there for child sexual abuse but also for child labor. She’s the lead campaigner on child labor, #notmadebychildren. So this was started last November in 2015 to raise awareness on the issue and to galvanize the Indian public to lobby against it. With her power under her belt of social media, Eirliani reached 2.4 million people in just over two weeks. Having got the social media, Eirliani has now become a main blogger. You can find her on the Huffington Post India. She blogs on child abuse and child line safety and she also is India Today groups DailyO. This is a blogger on child rights and child protection where she combines it with outdoor adventures. Indeed, they have discovered that outdoor activity and challenging oneself to the types of rigor that Eirliani has done with her climbing and her hiking is a highly therapeutic for those who are dealing with these dark memories. You can find out more about Eirliani’s trek to the South Pole by checking her out on the Outdoorjournal.US, that’s outdoor-journal-dot-US and also Oudorjournal.In.

This is a woman to keep in touch with. Let her know that you’re behind her voice. Let her know that she’s got you with her as she makes the trek to the South Pole. As you connect with the story over the week, we will be posting ways in which you can lend your voice to the South Pole excursion.

Thank you for listening to my voice for the last few minutes, many minutes, and if you’ve made it this far, good on you. You know where to find me; I’m at Lesleysouthwicktrask.com and at Womenwholead.co, also on facebook at Women Who Lead Radio Show. This is your show. It’s an opportunity for powerful dialogue, powerful stories of women who are leading, women who are making a difference in our world. Thank you, Eirliani Abdul Rahman, for the courage that you’ve shown, for the bravery you’re about to endure, and for being truly someone that we can be inspired by. This is your show and I am your host Lesley Southwick-Trask. See you next time.


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