The fellows of Resolve Foundation’s inaugural social justice programme, who hail from diverse backgrounds, are united over a single principle: they are not alone.
Resolve was founded in 2017 by Victoria Wisniewski Otero with the aim of “empowering future community leaders to bring about inclusive social change” in Hong Kong. Among its core values are the pursuit and protection of rights, equality, solidarity, organisation, leadership, giving voice to marginalised communities, and empowerment—ideas that form an acronym for the NGO’s name. Its annual fellowship seeks to provide emerging community leaders with the tools to become social justice leaders and changemakers in and beyond their communities. This year’s focused on gender-based violence.
Nonprofit organisation Women for Women International defines gender-based violence as including any physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse, threats, coercion, and economic or educational deprivation.
HKFP spoke with three fellows about why they decided to join the initiative earlier this year.
A cross-community issue
As beacons for their respective communities, the fellows said they hope to bring their varied experiences with gender-based violence to the discussion table.
Julian Sun, 26, is a Singapore-born and Taiwan-raised artist living in Hong Kong. As a trans man, he said he believes gender-based violence disproportionately affects transgender people owing to Hong Kong’s traditional values and a lack of public understanding of his community.
“In Chinese society, there are these… Confucian values,” he said. “You have to respect your parents’ wishes so you can’t alter your body in any shape or form.”
“That’s really deep-rooted in a lot of conservative Chinese families, and a lot of trans people struggle with that because they think—’wait, if I want to be myself I have to somehow dishonour my family.’ But I feel like that shouldn’t be the case. You can love your family and be yourself at the same time.”
He explained that, growing up, he felt pressure to transition in private out of fear being misunderstood, but that he was emboldened to speak out in the hopes that it could influence the public’s understanding of trans issues.
“Everything is interconnected and I think I can help people who are in more than one community and I feel I can speak out for trans issues,” he said.
This sense of community responsibility is also shared by Shelley Leung, 28—a qualified lawyer, soon to be undertaking a PhD abroad, and survivor of gender-based violence. Though born and raised in Hong Kong, she said she has felt marginalised due to her half-Filipina identity and has sought to combat some of the stigmas around gendered violence through her activism.
“Gender-based violence can happen to people of all genders and sexuality. And ultimately, it’s about whether we have that respect for people of all identities,” she told HKFP, pointing out that the issue is not confined to one gender.
Leung added that she felt impelled to become more active in gender-based violence social justice in the hopes of building a support network for survivors: “The more people who speak out—the support system becomes bigger,” she said. “We are in this together and there is hope. There will always be someone you can reach out to.”
Resolve’s fellowship aims to tap into diverse communities in order to develop such a support system—including among foreign domestic workers, who make up the largest migrant population in the city.
Leeh Ann Hidalgo, 32, is a Filipino former-teacher who moved to Hong Kong in 2013 to work as a foreign domestic worker. As someone who was exposed to second-hand gender-based violence, she has turned to photography as a coping mechanism for being “pigeon-holed” as a domestic worker.
There were 386,075 migrant domestic workers living in Hong Kong by the end of 2018, according to the Census and Statistics Department.
Hidalgo told HKFP that gender-based violence should also be considered a domestic worker issue given the overwhelming majority of them are women, though she insisted people of all genders can be affected: “They always mention women, but what about the other members of society? It’s also experienced by members of the LGBT community. What about males?”
“It affects people second-hand—it’s the witnesses,” she added. “It is not just physical and sexual abuse. It’s verbal, it’s like not sending your daughter to school.”
Recovery ‘not linear’
Those who undertake the daunting task of speaking out face a long journey ahead.
Sun explained that the pressure to please others used to eat away at him: “I struggled with a lot of self-denial and identity issues,” he said. “Your outer appearance doesn’t match what you feel like on the inside. That gave me a lot of the stress because people were calling me something I wasn’t.”
“You bottle things up and you feel like there’s a dead end and you don’t have a future.”
But this sense of hopeless, often experienced in isolation, was shared by other fellows.
“I was once in this tunnel and I thought it was neverending,” Leung said. “I felt that all this knowledge I had gained couldn’t help me at all.”
“We, as survivors, when we have trauma we get into this dark hole where we forget about everything. We shut ourselves from the world and we lose that capacity to deal with small matters in life.”
Leung said that this experience was particularly pronounced in Hong Kong where there was a lack of knowledge on the resources available to survivors. This was compounded by some of her relatives—from both Filipino and Chinese cultures—who laid blame her and dismissed her story as trivial, she said.
“Even if we didn’t report the case, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” she said. “We all have our way of dealing with this and our own pace of recovery. It’s different for everyone.”
The fellows have adopted various forms of activism. Hidalgo, who is a member and mentor at non-profit Lensational, has used photography as a window into the lives of domestic workers and a platform to express the grievances of the community, which she also discusses with the other fellows whom she called “family.”
Hong Kong has seen multiple domestic worker abuse cases hit the headlines including Baby Jane Allas who was abruptly fired in February for having cervical cancer. In 2015, an employer was sentenced to six years in prison and fined over HKD$800,000 in damages after images surfaced of Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s battered and bruised body.
“The abuse of domestic workers is an open secret—we know it’s happening but no one is talking about it,” Hidalgo said. “How can we tackle this issue seriously if no one will speak up?”
Sifting through a stack of images she has prepared for an exhibition, she plucked out one a of a woman swimming in shaded waters. Softly and delicately, she explained that the scene represented the uncertainty faced by domestic workers upon arriving in Hong Kong.
“The only thing we have is courage and our goal? This,” she said, circling a light patch in the water with her finger. “No matter how hard or dark the path is, as long as we focus on this, we will survive.”
The fellows said they believed that recovery from gender-based violence has often been tied up in a narrative that neglects the long and difficult emotional journey that follows the initial act of speaking out.
“I think people think that when you speak out, that’s it, it’s over, it’s solved, but it’s not,” Leung said. “It is what follows after that is so important.”
She said the recovery process took years and was marred by setbacks.
“I can tell you there is light at the end of this tunnel, you probably can’t see it now, but please be hopeful,” she added. “Deal with your recovery one baby step at a time because one day, we’ll get there.”
“We shouldn’t be alone on this journey and I believe your story.”
For transgender people, their transition can take years. Sun said the oldest person he had heard of began his transition at 70-years-old.
“Transitioning is a life-long journey,” he said. “Even though it may seem soul-crushing right now because it’s the beginning of your journey, things will get better over time.”
Sun likened beginning his transition to having a weight lifted off of his shoulders: “I used to play video games and I used to feel like I could only live my life through video games,” he said. “But now I can be me. I don’t have to log in to a character that’s a guy.”
“Now, my outer shell matches who I feel on the inside. I’m still me, just an improved or upgraded version,” he said with a grin.
Resolve will be celebrating its two year anniversary with a birthday party on Thursday, October 17, from 6:30-8:30pm at Solas. More information can be found on their website.