In 2017, the World Health Organisation estimated that nearly one billion children between the ages of two and 17 have been subjected to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In 2014, UNICEF data showed that over 120 million children under the age of 20 were victims and survivors of sexual abuse.
These alarming statistics call for immediate action, and author-activist Eirliani Abdul Rahman is one of the heroes who heeded that call.
A child rights activist, Eirliani has in the past four years impacted millions of children across the world through her global campaigns to raise awareness about and call for action against child sexual abuse.
“For me, I would like to have one child not to have gone through what I went through, having been abused sexually as a child. And if just one child is saved, then I will go happily to my grave,” the Colorado, US-based activist told MAKERS India.
To be sure, Singapore-born Eirliani has run several successful campaigns, including leading the #FullStop to #childsexualabuse campaign in September 2015 that reached more than 16 million people in just six weeks.
The success of the #FullStop campaign also inspired Nobel laureate and child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi to launch the Bharat Yatra – a march across India to create awareness about the issue of child sexual abuse, with repercussions including work on a new human trafficking bill in the country.
The Bharat Yatra, which took place in October 2019, covered some 11,000 km over 36 days, with 1.4 million people from all walks of life joining the campaign.
Keeping a Childhood Promise
Still, Eirliani’s journey to becoming a child rights activist is a lesson in staying true to one’s promise.
Growing up, Eirliani had avowed that she would be a voice for the voiceless, and true enough, the former diplomat gave up a successful life in the Singapore Foreign Services to take on the cause of child sexual abuse survivors like herself.
“When I was 17, I saw a documentary on dowry burning in South Asia and it moved me. I then made a vow to myself to give a voice to the voiceless before I turn 40. Leaving the Foreign Service was my fulfilling that promise to myself,” she said.
Still, the door to a life of fierce campaigning and activism opened up when she met Kailash Satyarthi.
In 2015, Eirliani, who was posted in New Delhi as a political counsellor for the Singapore Foreign Service at the time, was invited to the house of a member of the Indian Parliament for tea when she met Kailash sir – as she respectfully calls him.
“Kailash sir is a most remarkable human being. He truly changed my life… (At the MP’s residence) I summoned the courage to ask Kailash sir whether I could work with him on a social media campaign against child sexual abuse. He immediately said yes. There was no looking back after that,” Eirliani said.
Eirliani is also a member of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, working towards making the platform a safer place. As part of this role, Eirliani advises CEO Jack Dorsey on online child safety, especially on new Twitter products before they are rolled out.
“The work (with Twitter) is pro bono but I feel that with increasing accessibility to the internet in the global South, and with parents and guardians sometimes being unaware of online tools, it is more important than ever to keep the internet safe for our children,” she said.
YAKIN and Stories of Survival
Continuing her affiliation with Satyarthi, Eirliani works as a programme director at his Children’s Foundation in the US, and has also edited his book Will for Children (2016).
She also co-founded a non-profit organisation, Youth, Adult Survivors, and Kin in Need (YAKIN).
Through YAKIN, Eirliani co-organises book readings around the world. YAKIN, she says, works as a platform for adult survivors of child sexual abuse to tell their stories of healing from the past.
Eventually, she brought out a book titled Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse (2017), which is a compilation of stories of five men and seven women who were child sexual abuse survivors; the survivors were from various countries, including Germany, India, Indonesia, Singapore, South Africa, the UK, and the US.
“Unfortunately, taboo exists everywhere – be it in my home country or in India. I currently live in the US and it is more accepted here to speak openly about it. There are myths to be smashed, of course. The child victims are not Lolitas; they are not responsible for what happened, and are not to be blamed,” Eirliani emphasised.
Indeed, breaking the silence and taboo surrounding child sexual abuse is a continuing but major challenge, she added.
To overcome this, “we can all do our part by speaking up, and giving a voice to the voiceless by creating platforms for adult survivors to talk about their experience and respective healing journeys,” said Eirliani.
According to Eirliani, globally, the law enforcement system needs to be more effective, and the police need to be sensitised to the needs of child victims. This is especially true in countries like India, where the judicial system has to also speed up the clearance of its backlog of cases in order to take up new ones in a more timely manner, she added.
On Mothers and Mountaineering
The outdoor enthusiast has, over the years, successfully combined her love for outdoor activities such as mountaineering, skiing, fishing, and rock climbing, with her activism and campaigns.
“It was through rock climbing that I was able to learn to be more present in my body. Survivors of child sexual abuse often dissociate, and this was the sport that taught me how to focus. If you are not truly “committed” (focussed), you could fall off the cliff, as it were,” Eirliani said.
For as long as she can remember, Eirliani has been a feminist, similar to her grandmother and mother, who divided household chores with her husband equally. She recalled fighting her way to a computer camp at the age of nine, after learning that her brother had been enrolled.
“But I learnt to pick my battles,” she said.
Growing up in a lower-middle-class family in Singapore, Eirliani was particularly inspired by her mother who was the school prefect of the first-ever batch of Malay women to finish high-school and a member of the National Police Cadet Corps.
“My mother instilled a huge sense of pride in me and of how far we had come,” said Eirliani, who describes herself as an ‘unapologetic perfectionist.’
Today, Eirliani finds contentment in the work she has done so far, and in her quiet moments, is always thinking of new creative ways to launch a campaign or raise awareness on the issue of child sexual abuse.
The activist is currently preparing to take her campaign to raise awareness against child sexual abuse global by skiing to the North Pole in April 2020.
Speaking about her key learning as an activist working on a cause so close to her heart, Eirliani said, “This work has taught me the importance of team work and spirit. We will all have good days and bad days, but we must remember why we joined this cause in the first place, and to remember above all, that it is about the safe future of our children.”