For many of us, home is our refuge as we ride out the second, third and fourth waves of the Coronavirus epidemic, which has taken the lives of so many and set the economy into a lurch. But for victims of domestic abuse, home is not a safe haven. Cases of domestic violence have surged since the outbreak began last year, and as NGOs and government departments were forced to close at the height of the outbreak, victims have had few places to turn to.
This was the cloud over Mahnaz Lee’s head as her charity, Women Helping Women Hong Kong, pushed ahead to host an exclusive shopping event at Bulgari aimed at raising funds for the cause, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. With most fundraising events and auctions cancelled or postponed, it’s been a hard time for the charity, which has had to devise new ways of bringing in donations.
“Covid has changed how we do things,” says Lee matter-of-factly, as we sit in a private corner at the Bulgari store just moments before the fundraiser begins. “There’s a new normal that we have to think of. So I’m constantly thinking of new ways right now, to reinvent the ways we raise money and the way we do programmes, to fit this new normal.”
Esther Ma, a board member of Women Helping Women, chimes in. “But today’s a great testament to a new method of fundraising,” she says, “because this partnership actually stemmed from a casual conversation over high tea. Like, why don’t we try a small gathering here and partial proceeds of the sale can go to benefit Women Helping Women?”
A great believer in fate, Lee believes that when your heart is in the right place, plans will fall into place accordingly. “It’s so empowering that women, over coffee, can come up with so many ideas,” she says enthusiastically of her friends and board members, who’ve helped pull the project together.
“There’s a lot of wonderful people in Hong Kong and it’s not just about us, it’s not about me,” she emphasises. “Thanks to Bulgari, we have new friends doing great things and raising funds and continuing our programme – and that’s my main goal. It just so happens that I’m giving the interview today, but it’s not about me, it’s about the cause. But there’s a lot of women behind to make it all work.”
Unless you’re there to talk about her philanthropic efforts, Lee rarely allows the media a glimpse into her personal life, which she and her family guard fiercely. Married to David, the former chairman of Lee Kum Kee, the Iranian-born Lee and her family have dedicated much of their lives to contributing to society and giving back where help is needed most.
Since stepping down from the family business, her husband chairs the Lee Kum Kee Family Foundation, whose focus is on promoting rapport within families. Lee created Women Helping Women in 2010, at the time wanting to create her own organisation when she stopped working for Lee Kum Kee. Doing thorough research and with some soul-searching, she took it on herself to find out the areas in which women needed help the most. But as a woman – and as a mother – she naturally gravitated towards family issues.
“I kept thinking of the ways that I could help,” she tells me. “Being a woman, being a mother, I always valued family. And I think it’s very important, as both a role model and a woman, to bring harmony, happiness and love to other families. So when I found that there was a need to help women facing domestic violence in Hong Kong, it was immediately an area that I thought we should spend more of our energy on, to promote and to bring awareness to that.”
Lee calls herself one of the fortunate ones who’s never been subject to or witnessed domestic violence, but just because she has no experience that doesn’t mean it’s an issue she can turn a blind eye to. “There’s a lack in that segment,” she says. “The government can only do so much, so there’s a lot of gaps to fill. That segment is wide open and there aren’t too many organisations involved.”
Hong Kong remains a relatively conservative society, despite social changes around the world that have madeit easier for women to voice out against sexism, abuse and their perpetrators. But still, Lee observes, it isn’t easyto speak out when there’s fear.
“Women aren’t outspoken, especially when they feel the fear, when they feel that they’re in danger,” she says. “Because if they do talk about it, they don’t know what the consequence is because they’re in a violent situation.”
What Women Helping Women does is to take a soft approach, and offer victims a comfortable outlet to get to the root of their issues. “We want to preserve their dignity and we don’t want to label them as someone who’s domestically abused,” says Lee.
Women aren’t outspoken, especially when they feel the fear, when they feel that they’re in dangerMahnaz Lee
The organisation works with NGOs with wide-reaching networks, such as the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society, Harmony House, Caritas, Rain Lily and the YWCA. Tables and banners are set up discreetly at community centres and housing estates, and people are given the opportunity to approach social workers on their own accord. To ensure that the programmes are effective, Lee is extremely selective about the partners her charity works with.
“I spend 50 percent of my time studying programmes and making sure we reach out to the right segment, and the other 50 percent is all about fundraising. That takes up a lot of my time too,” says Lee, who’s both the founder and managing director of Women Helping Women. “I was very concerned about getting the right direction. There are a lot of charities in Hong Kong and there’s a lot of commonality in what they do. We wanted to do something different.
“We try to set up programmes that are empowering, meaning that once the victims go through the programme, they can actually help themselves,” says Lee. “And they can come back and be a mentor to other women. The programme is educational, and it continues to have this ripple effect. Once they’re in there and they’ve finished the programme, they’re actually empowered to help other women and say, ‘This is my experience, this is what I went through and this is what happened.’ It’s like a huge support group.”
Lee sees herself as the sower of seeds, and it’s her hope that women collectively can help one another through familial issues and abuse – there really wasn’t a more fitting name for her organisation than Women Helping Women.
“I planted the seed, can I say that? But I thought that it was a good seed to plant,” she says. “As women, we wear so many different hats, but we’re all carers. You know, we’re daughters, so we have to be good to our parents; we’re mothers, so we have to anchor our family; and we’re wives, we’re grandmothers, all of that.”
Women Helping Women is entering its second decade this year, and Lee’s will and message are stronger than ever, despite the obstacles the city faces, including the pandemic. She’s optimistic: “I would say the first decade was great, and the second decade, we’re going to adapt and push forward. We’ll always have challenges but it’s how we deal with it. But we have a good team of ladies who are very dynamic, very forward-thinking and we have great teamwork.”