By Melissa Zhu
SINGAPORE: Ms Eirliani Abdul Rahman was 17 when she decided she would make an impact in the area of child rights in whatever way she could.
"I was in a bus and thinking about a documentary I had seen the night before about dowry burning ... That really moved me and I thought to myself: 'Before I reach 40, I will do something about it'," Ms Eirliani told Channel NewsAsia in an interview.
Dowry deaths, known to take place in some South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan, occur when husbands and in-laws murder or drive young women to suicide in an effort to extort an increased dowry.
Ms Eirliani, now 39, left her job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in December last year to fulfil her "childhood dream" of helping child sexual abuse survivors.
"You only live once, and I'm just very impatient to get started. And with what I've done with MFA, I've built up a valuable network of people who would be willing to help me ... I just thought it was the time to go forward and do something about it," said the former political counsellor at the High Commission of the Republic of Singapore in New Delhi.
Now, aside from working as the director of campaigns in India for non-government organisation (NGO) Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation, Ms Eirliani is also nurturing her own fledging charity, Young Adult Survivors & Kin In Need (YAKIN), which she co-founded with Singapore Institute of Mental Health's medical board chairman Professor Daniel Fung.
She is also preparing to undertake a 1,100-kilometre journey to the South Pole while pulling about 60kg of equipment and supplies in a sled – all in the name of raising awareness of child sexual abuse survivors and YAKIN.
If she succeeds in the planned expedition in January 2017, Ms Eirliani is set to be the first woman from Singapore to have completed the expedition by foot – about seven years after Madam Sophia Pang became the first Singaporean woman to reach the South Pole through a combination of skiing and climbing in December 2009.
AN 'ARDUOUS' JOURNEY AHEAD
That feat will not come easy though. Average monthly temperatures at the South Pole hovers around -30°C in January, the month Ms Eirliani intends to begin her journey to the Antarctic destination.
The avid rock climber went through similar conditions when she participated in the "chadar" (Hindi for blanket) trek in February this year. The winter trail is on a frozen river in the remote Zanskar valley in Ladakh, India, which inhabitants of the former Buddhist Tibetan kingdom use to reconnect with the world in January and February - the time when the ice is at its strongest and most parts of the river can be walked on.
With night-time temperatures of about -30°C and daytime temperatures ranging between -24°C and -15°C, camping outdoors was "difficult", even with the chemical heaters and hot water bottles Ms Eirliani had brought on the advice of other mountaineers.
"That was hard; it was only five nights in polar conditions but I just had to remember to keep going," she recounted.
With her journey to the South Pole expected to take 60 days on foot, Ms Eirliani is going all out with training, exercising five times a week. Her routine includes 1.5-hour runs, core and leg exercises, pull-ups to maintain her upper-body strength and a diet heavy in protein shakes, meat and healthy carbohydrates in an effort to sustain a targeted weight gain of seven to 13 kilogrammes for the long trek ahead.
Ms Eirliani rock climbing in Pachmarhi, India, in September 2014. (Photo: Adnan Vahanvaty)
She will be joined on her journey by her Lithuanian rock-climbing partner, Ms Ruta Sidlauskaite, and their guide Sarah McNair-Landry, the youngest person to have travelled to both the North and South Poles.
"It’s going to be arduous and draining, physically, but it’s a really a mental game as well," Ms Eirliani said.
The mental resilience needed is similar to that in rock climbing, she added.
"Rock climbing is really like solving a puzzle on the wall where you put your feet and mind. Your mind and body need to be united because if you’re not focused, you’d just fall ... Imagine you're on a wall and want to reach out to something to grip onto, if you keep thinking you can’t do it what happens is your body clenches up. Now you can’t reach out and what you think is going to happen will actually happen.
"But if you just say: ‘I’m committed, I’m going to try no matter what' and you reach out, you will do it. Your thoughts have an impact on your body."
There are probably many applications of that philosophy.
And Ms Eirliani believes keeping the purpose of her journey – to raise awareness for child sexual abuse survivors – in mind will give her the strength to get through her trek to the South Pole.
“The thing that will keep me going is the fact that I am doing this in the long term, that I want to raise the voices of children," she said.
PUTTING CHILD ABUSE ON THE MAP
The diplomat of 10 years was about to return to Singapore as her posting drew to an end in October 2014, but it was happenstance that resulted in her staying in India instead. As she made her rounds to bid farewell to acquaintances, an Indian member of parliament suggested she join in for a gathering that Nobel laureate and child labour activist Kailash Satyarthi would be attending since she was also passionate about children's issues.
That meeting resulted in Ms Eirliani working at Mr Kailash's Foundation, instead of returning to Singapore.
She now describes her days as "a little bit crazy". From Mondays to Fridays she brainstorms and promotes campaigns for the Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation during the daytime and squeezes in training for the expedition in the evenings. On weekends, she spends most of her time helping to manage Delhi Rock, an indoor climbing gym in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, she is in talks with various organisations in Singapore and India for activities for children under YAKIN, including a writing workshop in collaboration with the Singapore Art Museum and climbing therapy for child sexual abuse survivors with Main Tendue, a group of French NGOs. She also recently signed a book deal for a collection of stories from real-life child sexual abuse survivors from all over the world.
Even though the hectic schedule is "intense" and requires her to be "seriously disciplined and very organised", Ms Eirliani said what drives her is knowing that she is doing this for a reason.
Despite YAKIN – which also means belief in Hindi and confidence in Malay – being just over four months old and still a work in progress, Ms Eirliani has plans to expand its scope internationally.
“I just want people to get together and say: 'Yes, this is an issue and we need to talk about it. How do we prevent child sexual abuse?'"
This discussion and awareness, she hopes, will help prevent more cases of abuse from happening. "People develop trust issues, marriages break down, victims develop addictions ... It's heartbreaking when we speak to survivors and I think working on prevention is really key."
For now, her role at the Foundation gives her "access to a huge network, access to amazing people", which she believes will help her grow YAKIN gradually.
"It has been a very steep learning curve but I feel very blessed. I think people do want to help, they just don't know how and it's just about leveraging and harnessing that positive energy."
Ms Eirliani, you are my hero today. God bless you!