The following is an excerpt of an interview with Saleemah Ismail, the immediate past president of UNIFEM Singapore by SALT online.
Young women and girls are common targets of human trafficking networks around the world. Once an at-risk girl herself, Saleemah Ismail is fighting to empower these women through education and legislation. The immediate past president of UNIFEM Singapore talks candidly to SALT Online on why this work is important to her:
UNIFEM’s list of achievements are many, but what for you are the highlights and why?
The UNIFEM Scholarship for Girls is something I believe in. I feel that it is important to invest in girls’ education and equally as important to have a deterrent like the penal code to protect them from exploitation.
I have had a series of defining moments in my life. Several years ago, I met a 14-year-old girl named Lara working in the Batam sex industry. I’ll never forget the pain I saw in her eyes. A sex-trafficked girl is a rape victim. A girl forced into prostitution is being raped. How could I allow a child like Lara to be raped? I know I couldn’t just walk away. When I was 15, I myself had been approached by a much older man offering me jobs and money for sex. The fact that I was wearing my school uniform did not deter him.
I had a happy childhood. I had an education and a loving supportive family. I knew what my rights were and how to protect myself. But what if I hadn’t? How would my life have been? Would I have fallen prey because I was poor? Would I have had the strength to walk away? These questions motivated me to focus on at-risk girls. I feel that I was an ‘at-risk’ girl myself and I know how hard it was to stand up to these pressures especially when combined with an adverse economic situation.
How did you get interested in humanitarian work?
I have incredibly kind, compassionate and wise parents. They are my role models. I grew up in a loving home, which was also a shelter for anyone needing a safe space. It was not uncommon for someone to knock on the door seeking help in the middle of the night. We sheltered a few runaway kids too. For example, we had a teenager who had walked out on her physically abusive father. Her mother was grateful that her daughter stayed with us instead of sleeping on the beach alone.
Everyone, including us, slept on the floor. At night, the bedroom and living room floors would be covered with the folding mattresses. Our two-bedroom HDB flat often housed more than 20 people at a time. And as long as they were willing to eat what we ate, they could stay as long as they needed to.
My father was a storekeeper while my mother was a washerwoman, so they were not rich but they were generous. They did what they did because they felt it was natural for them to be taking care of others in the community. Like my parents, I don’t think what I am doing is any type of humanitarian work. I believe this is just part of living in a community.
Read the rest of the interview here.