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As Women’s History Month is coming to a close, it is important to remember that women should be highlighted and celebrated across the calendar. Hong Kong has more than its fair share of women who have not only fought for social, environmental, and animal rights, but have also pioneered the work in their field. Here are some of the most impressive female NGO founders you should know about.
It all began when Michele Lai’s five-year-old son was having a conversation with his parents about children across the world who don’t have access to all that he did. He asked a pertinent question, “How can I help?”, and suggested that he sell his toys to raise money. Emblematic of the generosity of spirit in the Lai family, mother and son then got working on creating a stall, called Preloved Treasure Box, at a local open market. While Lai was tempted to take over as it would be a lot easier to manage, she ensured that her son was involved in all the steps, and was overjoyed when she saw his enthusiasm. He even stayed at the stall all afternoon, helping sell the toys and raise $800!
This critical incident proved to Lai that we should not underestimate the power of kids who have the capacity to make a difference from a young age. She started to involve and empower children of all ages in supporting other children and communities. Having grown leaps and bounds from their early days, Kids4Kids celebrated their tenth anniversary in 2020, and have established six key programmes working across 300 schools and inspiring 21,904 students!
For Lai, some of the most impactful work has been at the secondary school level, working with students who have not had the resources to strive for their goals. “Powered by Service,” a programme developed by Kids4Kids, aims to develop confidence, communication, and resilient skills among low-resource students, whereas the annual “Powered by Youth” forum provides the opportunity for students to hear from changemakers. Finally, “Action for A Cause” allows students to plan and execute a community project they are passionate about, with full support in terms of mentors and funding. Often, it only takes just an opportunity and someone who believes in them for the students and their projects to flourish and grow.
The overarching goal of Kids4Kids has, with Lai, evolved over time. The organisation aims to provide sustainable growth opportunities for all students in an attempt to build an empowered, socially conscious younger generation. With over 10 years of success data, Lai and her team aspire to create learning ecosystems, equipping schools and teachers with resources to run the programs themselves to ensure lasting impact on the students. “You are never too young to change the world,” she says.
As a journalist writing about the environment—especially pollution and waste—Christina Dean was appalled and angry on a day-to-day basis; the further she dug into the data, specifically within the fashion industry, the greater her dismay. In 2020, an average of 392 tonnes of textiles a day was sent to landfills—and that was just Hong Kong!
Dean’s training as a dentist allowed her to examine the impact not just on the environment (which obviously saw great degradation), but also on public health. Her tenacious and persistent nature led her to further and deeper investigation, and ultimately, she had no choice but to take matters into her own hands. She founded Redress, Asia’s first fashion sustainability NGO, with a mission to reduce waste in the fashion industry. Since its founding in 2007, Redress has grown dramatically, with Dean at the helm. In addition to the educational work with fashion brands and designers, Redress hosts a number of events, including pop-up shops featuring pre-loved clothing, accessories, and upcycling workshops.
An added feather on her already filled cap, Christina Dean also recently launched Redress’s new headquarters and permanent shop in Sham Shui Po, the heart of the garment district in Hong Kong. But to Dean, her work as a leader is to provide a platform, not just for sustainable fashion designers through the Redress Design Award, but also for her own team. When hiring, Dean always looks to see what makes a person tick, what are their needs and requirements, and how they see themselves. Having led the Redress team for over 13 years, and having come into herself, she now strives to ensure that the individuals on her team, with their varied experiences and backgrounds, are allowed space to become themselves.
13 years later, the future and vision of Redress remain the same: to prevent and transform textile waste. As with all organisations at a certain stage of maturity, Dean aims to further strengthen the systems and processes that allow this work to happen, something that is often overlooked in the NGO space. With stronger board governance and organisational systems, she is certain that the impact will be greater. In her years as the founder of Redress, Dean understands the importance of patience and persistence; after all, “nothing happens overnight.”
Steph Ng’s Body Banter story began in her early teens, at the onset of an eating disorder. Lost, confused, and overwhelmed with not just the illness, but also the lack of avenues to express her feelings and emotions, Ng tried countless options to make sense of her experiences. However, she found that misconceptions about eating disorders existed not just amongst the general public, but even amongst experienced professionals who were supposedly “experts” in the field.
Painful as her experiences of feeling misunderstood were, they acted as fuel for her fire of advocacy which eventually led to her founding of Body Banter. A platform for individuals to share their stories, specifically about body image and its role in our lives, the initial goal for Body Banter was to help people feel less alone and find solace in their sharing. What emerged was an evident mosaic of overlapping stories and experiences, tying into larger patterns of stigma around mental health.
Since then, Steph Ng’s message and story have reached and resonated with people around the world. Moreover, her positive energy and welcoming demeanour have created a safe space and community where ambassadors and volunteers are able to embrace the cause and plan their own projects, bringing their own ideas and aspirations that are relevant to them and their environment. This has led to the rapid growth of Body Banter over the last two years, with eight chapters across the world and stories spanning across mediums; blogs, podcasts, Instagram, and even an upcoming book!
Perhaps most importantly, Ng has grown and developed through this journey herself, and with her, the mission and vision for Body Banter. While her nuanced approach to this complex and increasingly important topic touches her team and volunteers, she has also allowed the community to impact her. Her leadership team has made Ng question her work from a multicultural and intersectional lens, thus examining the structural and cultural influences on our body image.
Her vision for Body Banter in the future is “to spotlight the ways in which body image perceptions are not formed in a vacuum, and always interact with our experiences and identities to culminate into what they are today. I want to continue to honour stories, rather than just statistics—to underline that we need to get comfortable with things being less clear-cut, to understand that our most authentic messages are often ‘messy.’”
Having worked in human rights law for over 12 years, Patricia Ho is intricately entrenched in the world of human trafficking and modern slavery. From forced labour and sexual exploitation to forced criminal activities and forced marriage, she has seen it all, and has worked tirelessly to end these rampant and insidious crimes.
However, she acknowledges the limitations of the law, and she was frustrated by the lack of all-rounded support that a person needs. In particular, there are several instances of women being unable to share their entire story or problem with Ho due to them suffering from depression or PTSD. At the same time, she heard stories from her colleagues, social workers, or psychologists who could help with the immediate issues faced by the client, but were unable to advise on long-term systemic solutions. Thus, she founded the Hong Kong Dignity Institute, with their mission of “Restoring dignity to the most vulnerable in Hong Kong, and going deep to dismantle the systems of exploitation that perpetuate these abuses.”
Each client that enters through the doors of HKDI is provided with a mental health and legal assessment at one time in one space. HKDI then connects them with the most relevant service providers for their situation and helps them escape and heal from cycles of trauma and abuse. In one particular case, Ho has been working tirelessly in providing legal support to a young girl in jail, but she has been hampered by what she can accomplish. Thus, through HKDI, Patricia created a dream team of counsellors, lawyers, and investigators to conduct a thorough review of the case and provide support from all angles. This not only helped the young girl fight her battle, but—for perhaps the first time—helped her feel safe and heard.
Mostly consisting of volunteers and advocates, Hong Kong Dignity Institute has grown organically as people come together to pool their resources and expertise. Ho aims to provide a platform for like-minded individuals, by identifying the volunteers’ goals and skill sets and empowering them to work on the overarching goal of ending human trafficking. Realising the enormity of the goal at hand, Ho truly believes that by combining the work on individual issues with a review of systemic problems, she can provide solutions to governments, communities, and individuals in tackling these atrocities.
Beautiful beaches, great seafood, and a laid back environment are what Sally Andersen expected upon moving to Lamma Island back in 1986. What she did not anticipate, however, was the abundance of puppies and adults that were abandoned on a small island in the bay, often looking sick and hungry. Always an animal lover, Andersen was moved to try and help as many as possible. She took in Bruno, her first dog, almost immediately, followed by four others.
She didn’t know it at the time, but she began her life’s work of rescuing and rehabilitating the dogs of Hong Kong. It wasn’t a conscious decision to start a dog rescue charity, but as the number of puppies and dogs in her house started growing, Andersen began helping them find homes with her friends and colleagues, ultimately founding Hong Kong Dog Rescue in 2003.
Over the last 20 years, Sally and her team of incredible dog lovers have had an incredible impact on the dogs of Hong Kong, who have come from all places with a range of physical, mental, and emotional ailments. One recent case is that of Ned, an adorable and friendly pup who has megaoesophagus, which means his food does not go down to the stomach naturally, so Ned has to sit upright during and after meals. Hong Kong Dog Rescue and some kind volunteers created a Bailey chair, which allowed Ned to sit up tall and eat his foods.
The standard of love and care that Andersen has set for not just herself but her entire organisation is palpable, in the team and in the volunteers. Their hard work and love for dogs are unparalleled and Andersen is convinced that even if she “disappeared tomorrow, they would be able to carry on the work, even if I hope they would miss me.”
With the day-to-day operations being managed by two teams in Ap Lei Chau and Tai Po, Andersen hopes to focus on advocating for animal rights, in particular educating and working with the individuals who make changes to the legal system. Hong Kong lags behind other countries in terms of animal protection and accepting dogs as part of society, and it’s encouraging to see progress, albeit painfully slow. Andersen and the HKDR team is committed to continuing the fight on behalf of the dogs.