“I Am Just Going Outside and May Be Some Time”

Eirliani Abdul Rahman skiing on the frozen Hudson Strait in Nunavut, Arctic Canada in March 2017. Photo credit: Erik Boomer.Canada
Erik Boomer

Eirliani Abdul Rahman is a diplomat turned activist. To raise awareness for survivors of sexual child abuse, she is setting out for an expedition to Antarctica in December. Eirliani will be documenting her inner and outer struggles as she is preparing for this trip, pulling a sled with 200 pounds in food and gear, in temperatures dipping to minus 48° Celsius.

This is a series about Eirliani’s personal leadership journey.

I loved reading as a child.

When I was ten, we had a small library at the back of the classroom where we were allowed to read once we had finished our class assignment. I would hurry through my work, hand it in to the teacher, skip happily to the back, and plonk myself down. Sighing contentedly, I would pull out a dog-eared book from the shelf and read.

Eirliani Abdul RahmanNGO Yakin

Eirliani Abdul Rahman

Eirliani Abdul Rahman is preparing for a 700-mile ski trip to the South Pole in December 2018 to raise awareness for child sexual abuse survivors. She is not new to dealing with harsh conditions, having already trained in gale force winds in Arctic Canada. Eirliani is the co-founder of YAKIN (Youth, Adult Survivors & Kin In Need), an NGO working on children’s rights and child protection, and a member of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council. She serves as director at the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation and is a member of the Global Diplomacy Lab.

It was here that I, a girl who had not once left tropical Singapore, discovered snowy Antarctica and read about the ill-fated expedition by Robert Falcon Scott in 1912. What struck me then was the ultimate sacrifice made by Captain Lawrence Oates, walking out of his tent into a blizzard, aware that his gangrene-infected feet were slowing down the team’s progress and his team mates’ chances at survival.

His words, as immortalized in Scott’s diary, haunted me: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

It was the noblest thing I had ever come across.

That spirit of adventure and exploration – some might even call it foolhardiness – left its impression on me but laid dormant for years. It was during a visit to the Alfred-Wegener-Institut in Bremerhaven, Germany, that it was rekindled again.

I had always had a certain fascination for everything German, having chosen to learn the language at the age of 12. I had been plotting for a posting to Germany ever since. I served as First Secretary (Political) at the Singapore Embassy in Berlin from 2007 to 2011. In 2010, I was one of twelve diplomats selected for the International Diplomats Programme, sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office and the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, which included a visit to the aforementioned institute.

"I had always been rubbish at the sciences, but one dream I nursed as a child was to discover new species of flora or fauna."

Eirliani Abdul Rahman

I thought it would be a ho-hum kind of visit. But as scientist after scientist pulled out drawers of specimens and, in one instance, handed out rock samples, I grew more and more excited. I had always been rubbish at the sciences, but one dream I nursed as a child was to discover new species of flora or fauna.

A scientist explained that the institute conducted analysis and modeling of natural variations and its impact on earth. He showed us a sample of an ice core drilling which they studied to examine the dynamics between the ice, glacial sediments, and water to understand how the system might respond to future changes in the climate. "I had never been more excited about a piece of rock."

"I had never been more excited about a piece of rock."
Eirliani Abdul Rahman

But then I returned to Berlin and the workaday life and promptly forgot about my fascination with Antarctica. (That rock sample remains a treasured item in my rock collection.)

I then moved to my next posting to Delhi, India. Here, as Political Counselor at the Singapore High Commission, I dealt with the Indian media, cultivating relationships with senior editors, and it was then, quite literally waking up one morning, that I had an epiphany.

Map of AntarticaMap

The Antarctic

Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest spot on the planet. The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth was recorded there: -54°Celsius. Antarctica is larger than Australia. It makes up 8.9% percent of the earth's land, almost 98% percent of it being solid ice. The Antarctic was finally considered a continent in 1840. However, it has no capital city, currency, or official language. Today, it has active territorial claims submitted by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.

There is no official population, but governmental research stations are populated with groups of scientists at all times. Antarctica is inhabited by penguins, whales, seals, albatrosses, and other seabirds.

Another childhood dream – I was a precocious kid who, to my parents’ bewilderment, had a myriad of obsessions – was to help give a voice to the voiceless. When I was 17, I saw a documentary on dowry deaths, where women in South Asia were burnt to their deaths by their husbands and/or his family when the bride’s family could not satisfy their demands for more dowry.

I saw the barely moving lips of a dying woman as she told the videographer who had set her alight. I vowed that I would do something about this when I grew up. Over time, I became passionate about helping child victims and adult survivors of child sexual abuse and I had been wondering how to raise awareness on this issue in Singapore.

It then struck me: I had to be audacious, think of a bold goal. Like skiing to the South Pole. Journalists love a good story. Or so I thought.

I announced it by writing about it in my usual column in the Outdoor Journal, where I wrote about my adventures rock climbing and mountaineering in the Himalayas, and was, quite frankly, taken aback by the reaction. Several former colleagues in the Singapore Foreign Service immediately shared the post on Facebook, and friends in the Singapore media picked it up.

I was interviewed by Channel News Asia, an Asian cable news agency, and the Straits Times, Singapore’s main broadsheet. Berita Harian, a Malay-language newspaper carried a story on me, while the Singapore Magazine, published by the Singapore International Foundation, which seeks to strengthen cross-cultural ties, did a feature story.

Child Abuse India
Children in India marching for their rights while upholding posters of Kailash Satyarthi.

And what luck I had. In October 2014, after an Indian Member of Parliament learnt that I was interested in working on the issue of child rights, invited me to have tea at his residence with Mr. Kailash Satyarthi, who at the time had not yet been bestowed with the Nobel Peace Prize. He is famous in India for having rescued, at the time, more than 85,000 children from child labor and child sex trafficking over 35 years.

On the appointed day, holding a cup of tea daintily in my hand, I broached the subject with all the temerity that I possessed: “Mr. Satyarthi, I’d like to work on the issue of child sexual abuse. May I partner you on a social media campaign on this, please?” Mr. Satyarthi regarded me with his kind eyes. “Yes, of course,” was his simple reply.

"The #FullStop to #childsexualabuse campaign reached out to 16 million people over 6 weeks."
Eirliani Abdul Rahman

And that was how I came to take no-pay leave for a year from the Singapore Foreign Service. On September 24, 2015, my colleagues from Mr. Satyarthi’s NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (“Save the Childhood Movement” in Hindi) and I launched the #FullStop to #childsexualabuse campaign which reached out to 16 million people over 6 weeks.

It came to the notice of the folks at Twitter who then invited me to sit on its Trust and Safety Council. That same year, I won the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Award.

In December 2015, I quit the Foreign Service, setting up my own not-for-profit YAKIN (Youth, Adult Survivors & Kin In Need) to help child victims and adult survivors of child sexual abuse.

Fast forward to this year and the Straits Times, which picked me as one of three Singaporeans who embody the spirit of adventure for a feature story on the occasion of Singapore’s National Day which falls on August 9.

The moral of the story?

Dream big! You don’t know where your dreams might take you.

Up next: Read about how Eirliani trains to prepare for the South Pole expedition.

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