Shalini Mahtani – Giving Hope to Hong Kong’s Ethnic Minority
To say Shalini Mahtani is an inspiration would be an understatement. Hardly a stranger to people in Hong Kong, she has built a name for herself that is held alongside some of the most respected voices in this city. Founder of The Zubin Foundation, Hospital Advisor, and Community Business, Shalini has impacted the lives of thousands here in Hong Kong and the APAC region.
The Zubin Foundation, named after her three-year-old son Zubin who tragically passed away from medical negligence, focuses on improving the lives of marginalised ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Through their various initiatives which include providing support for special educational needs children, empowering the ethnic youth with jobs and scholarships, a helpline for women and girls, to name a few, the foundation has proven to be a valuable asset for minorities in Hong Kong.
The foundation is primarily funded on a project basis by foundations and individual donors. Through this, they have managed to provide the much needed educational and other support to minority children, women and men.
The foundation also functions as a think tank collecting and researching data on ethnic minorities to assist lawmakers, NGOs and other organisations to further provide the right kind of help for the minorities here.
We sat with Shalini to get to know more about the work the foundation is doing and its plans for the future.
The Zubin Foundation has done tremendous work in the last five years for the minorities here. How do you see the foundation growing in the next decade?
“The Foundation has always worked based on need and is driven by its clientele. Its sole purpose being to alleviate suffering in the ethnic minority groups in the city. It was not in the plans to work with special needs children, but seeing the lack of resources for these kids, the foundation added educational programs for them.” When asked where the foundation sees itself in the next decade, Shalini clearly stated that she doesn’t see many of the problems that the community is currently facing going away any time soon. “The work the foundation is doing now will be equally relevant even in the next few years. To reduce poverty, social exclusion and suffering being high up in the list.”
Are there any new challenges our minority youths face today that they didn’t before?
“Hong Kong’s previous generation had alot more affinity to their ancestral community, be it the Indians, Pakistanis or Nepalese. Most people came here with the typical immigrant mentality, to keep their heads down and simply earn money. The new generation defines themselves
more as Hongkongers. They are born and raised here, and they self-identify as citizens of Hong Kong first before anything else. With this self-identity comes a whole different set of problems.” “Especially for girls,” says Shalini who “feel like Hong Kong, they go to schools where they are being taught like every other girl, but at home, they come from this very conservative background where the demands on them are very different.
This generation does not see their lives here as just for economic gain or family happiness, but also for the pursuit of their happiness. This may be starkly different from the wants and needs of their parents. Because they identify Hong Kong as their home, they are more prepared to speak about what they like and dislike about Hong Kong and are more likely to be involved in politics as well.”
How would you describe the level of discrimination faced by minority children, especially in government schools in Hong Kong?
“Discrimination is rampant across schools in Hong Kong and starts as early as in kindergarten, as many schools don’t really want ethnic minority kids. Unfortunately, many of the EM (ethnic minority) children, in Cantonese speaking kindergartens, are perceived as lazy and are known by teachers to require more work. Many of these kids do not speak Cantonese at home, and when they go to kindergarten, many react in one of two ways: either by going insular or by lashing out, out of frustration. Because of these behaviours, these kids face problems adjusting. They do require more teacher attention, and therefore schools are not keen to accept EM children. But as discrimination is unlawful in Hong Kong, these kids get accepted into schools but are placed separately from the local Chinese kids, often in afternoon classes separated from their Hong Kong Chinese counterparts.”
What kind of help does the women and girls helpline provide?
“Call Mira” (named after Shalini’s mother) is the only helpline in Hong Kong for women and girls in Hindi, English, and Urdu. Operated by the foundation, it runs three days a week. “I named it Mira because Mira (my mum) as a friend- is strong and loving. When a girl or a woman calls Mira, she can ask her anything, without fear of judgement.” The helpline has received over 500 calls from over 125 callers (many callers call more than once). “Each one of these women has experienced problems from finding a job to domestic violence, marital problems, and needing shelter for themselves and their children.” They also have a team of lawyers who work pro bono to provide legal aid to these women.
Any issues, in particular, that stand out for you in terms of the problems faced by minority women and girls here specifically?
“Unless you work in this field and speak the language and have access to the people you don’t realise how marginalised and isolated some of these women are. Particularly those getting married at a young age to Hong Kong boys, coming over as young wives often already pregnant by the time they arrive. Many are very isolated and controlled by the family they are married into. Many have dysfunctional relationships and are treated badly.” Shalini also informed us that many girls are forced into marriage in some of these communities. Those that are educated and born and brought up in Hong Kong are also pressured into marriages where they have no option but to agree because of the threat to their siblings. “They are told that if they don’t comply, their siblings will not be allowed to get an education.”
Many of these women come from cultures where they are already treated as second class citizens. How can the foundation support them in terms of finding jobs and getting financial independence?
“The Zubin Foundation has support groups across Hong Kong. We have three kinds; women helping women, girls helping girls and parents helping parents. We also have the helpline and we have recently set up the Ethnic Minority Well-being Centre for mental health. We provide emotional support as much as we can.
But for our women, finding employment is not easy here in Hong Kong. Many have tried leaving their abusive partners to find jobs but end up going back because they don’t know where else to go. It is not easy for them to develop skills in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Many are not wanted back by the parents, and in some cases, their parents don’t know about the abuse. These are some of the reasons why we all must work to educate all girls and keep them in school until at least age 18.”
The foundation also works with minority special needs children. What support do you provide in terms of their educational needs that the local government isn’t already providing?
“There are an increasing number of special needs children across Hong Kong. The percentage is higher amongst the EM because many expectant mothers do not access prenatal care during their pregnancies, and there are a lot of marriages that take place within families, to name a few. Research shows that almost 57% of EM special needs children drop out after primary school.
One of the main causes for this is the lack of support for the parents. With a clinical psychologist on board, the foundation helps parents understand what it means to have a special needs child. It also educates parents who have children with ADHD and Autism about routines, diets and provides them with a bag of tools that can help their child. The demand for training has been so high that we are now thinking of introducing a second round of training sessions for parents who have already been through the first. We have educated over 500 parents who have children with special needs, much of it is in Hindi and Urdu.”
Since the foundation came into place, how has the Hong Kong government helped in terms of providing the help needed for minorities here? Are there any government-funded organisations or programs designed specifically for the minority population?
“This administration has been very supportive of the ethnic minority population. The foundation comes out with a Diversity list every year, which is a list of EM who have the skills to sit on government advisory and statutory bodies. One of the reasons why Hong Kong has not done well with EM in the past is because the people advising government policy are not ethnic minorities themselves, and struggle to understand this population. The Diversity list which started in 2016 gives the government an option to consider EM for roles available on advisory committees and has so far appointed over 30 EM on these boards.
The government has also looked at our policy recommendations. Each year the Zubin Foundation makes recommendations to the government based on the needs we find through our work in the community. In the past year, nine of our policy recommendations made it into the policy address of the Chief Executive.
Hong Kong is said to be one of the most multicultural cities in South East Asia, with minority families who have lived here for generations. Yet one does not see the minority population represented adequately in the media or the culture here? Wouldn’t better representation help with better acceptance?
“Better representation will definitely help. Hong Kong though is not a multicultural city even if it appears to be so. Only 7% of the population in HK is not Chinese. Half of that comprises of foreign domestic helpers. So the mass public does not have that much experience living and working with EM. Many hold views that have been passed down by their parents from colonial times.
There hasn’t been that much contact between the EM community and the local Chinese community. Even though Hong Kong presents itself as an international city, the non-Chinese population is actually very small.”
Apart from donating funds, is there any other way in which the higher-earning members of our minority community can help?
“Yes, there are many ways. Donating is often easiest for many. But we also have many committees and would love for people to be involved in them, and we need trained volunteers who can be included in other areas of our work. From volunteers for the “Call Mira” helpline, volunteering with office work, helping us put up posters for our services across Hong Kong, and helping us give talks to groups and schools. There is so much work to do.”
Can you tell us a little about the Opportunity Bank project at The Zubin Foundation?
It is a project co-funded by the SIE fund of the government, the Purviz and Ruby Shroff Foundation, and the Sun Yat Sen family foundation. It is simply about providing opportunities for the EM in terms of jobs, scholarships and training.
The Opportunity bank matches the right candidates and connects people who need specific services with the service providers. Started in 2019, this is a three-year project, and we hope to have it running as a web platform by 2021. In 2019 itself we have placed 30 people in jobs, and held the first scholarship fair matching universities and private foundations with EM students.”
Having been awarded an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II for her services in corporate social responsibility in Hong Kong, and honoured by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader are just a couple of the recognitions Shalini has received through the years. Though these are not what inspire and drive her to do the work she does. In her own words, “Hong Kong is my home.” And being a member of the ethnic minority population herself, she is motivated to improve the lives of a community of people who need all the help they can get.