A chance encounter with underage victims of the sex trafficking trade in Batam in 2003 changed Saleemah Ismail’s life.
“I met girls who were 13 to 15 years of age who had been trafficked into prostitution,” she recounts.
“What struck me was that they looked like me; they looked like my cousins, my sisters, my neighbours. They looked like the people I grew up with.”
While Saleemah started her career in the private sector and worked for several years there, the call of social activism proved too strong for the gender equality and diversity advocate.
The 48-year-old was working as a volunteer translator then, but in an instant she was spurred to do more to fight for women and girls who have been exploited and abused.
“I remember vividly a 14-year-old girl named Lara*, who even at that tender age had already serviced 300 clients,” says Saleemah through tears.
“The difference between me and her was $22, the cost of a ferry ticket from Batam to Singapore.”
Two decades on, the memory has not escaped Saleemah and neither has her pledge to do more for women.
(*Name has been changed to protect victim’s identity.)
After serving on the board of the National Committee for UNIFEM Singapore (now the Singapore Committee for UN Women) for over 10 years, the fighter is currently spearheading New Life Stories, a non-profit organisation that supports pre-school education for the children of incarcerated mothers.
“We want to break the cycle of poverty by providing these disadvantaged children with essential skills, such as reading and pro-social skills, so they can get a fair start in life,” she says.
The non-profit also extends their services to incarcerated mothers too.
“The whole process came about completely organically. My friends and I were invited by the Singapore Prison Service to develop a vocational training program for their female inmates,” explains Saleemah.
“After talking to them, I found out that many of the inmates were mothers and that they were extremely remorseful for the pain that they caused their family.”
She decided then to help these women heal their relationship with their children and mend their broken family ties.
To date, New Life Stories has helped some 15 mothers and 30 children a year, every year, since their inception.
Words to live by: “Learn to listen as the best advice comes in the quietest of moments.”
Next up: “I’m hoping that we can support more mothers and children and to do that we need more resources. So, we’ll be drumming up awareness for New Life Stories through fundraisers and events.”
The Great Women Of Our Time 2017 is proudly presented by Lancôme.