Some of these very people have been recognised as part of The Weekly’s Great Women of Our Time Awards over the past 13 years, that aims to shine a spotlight on 18 outstanding, high-achieving working women every year in six respective categories.
We’ve had scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and businesswomen join our ranks through the years; joining them this year in our Health, Sports & Wellness group are three remarkable women who stand out for different reasons in different ways. Read their stories of hardship and triumph here:
Cassandra’s personal struggle and triumph over her disability spurred her to start The Safe Harbour Counselling Centre to help people deal with emotional challenges and feel whole again, using psychotherapy.
Visually impaired since she was aged eight, due to an inherited degenerative eye condition called Stargardt disease, Cassandra recalls feelings of isolation and was ridden with many questions growing up.
“Even at a young age, I understood that I was different; that I couldn’t do a lot of the things my peers could.” But, rather than dwell on her sorrows, she learnt to rise above daily challenges, and credits her mum’s brand of tough love for building up her sense of independence.
“My mother never cut me any slack because of my disability. She had the same expectations of me as she had of my brother, who is fully able-bodied. I had my fair share of household chores to complete, like washing the toilets and doing the dishes,” she explains.
That fighting spirit she was brought up with continues to drive Cassandra who was the first guide dog owner in Singapore, and she has been a vocal advocate for a wider acceptance of guide dogs in our society. (She’s pictured here with Esme, her guide dog.)
And amid that fighter is a heart for people. “I believe my purpose in life is to help the world be a slightly kinder place for the disabled community.”
She’s now set her sights on a new life coaching business called Actualised, which will focus on self coaching and professional development to help people realise their life’s purpose. She adds, “Hopefully, I get to spread that message of joy through my training.”
“When I wanted to go into nursing, my father was quite sceptical of my choice,” says Rujia. Being their youngest child and only girl in the family, he was worried about the low pay and demanding hours. But she eventually managed to convince her family and joined Tan Tock Seng Hospital as an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse before moving to education and training. Today, she is a community-based nurse and treats patients in their own homes.
Rujia finds going into patients’ homes gives her a better understanding of their medical conditions. “The main difference is that when you give advice in their homes, they may not listen, whereas patients tend to be a little more obedient when in the hospital,” she adds.
Despite the challenges, she has pressed on, visiting up to six homes a day from 8 am to 5.30 pm over a five-day work week. While there, she conducts various health checks and tests for diabetes, blood pressure and physical stress.
Surprisingly, the hardest part of the job for Rujia initially, was getting over her own prejudices: The poverty she witnessed saddened her. “I had never seen people living in hardship (growing up),” she admits.
But, today she fully engages with her patients, having picked up Hokkien and other dialects: “Food and language bring a lot of people together. Without a common language to link me to my patients, how can I improve their lives? In this way, I can touch the community I’m dealing with in ways that will bring meaningful impact.”
“Periods are everybody’s problem,” says Vanessa, adding that social beliefs and taboos surrounding menstruation add to the issues that women in less developed countries face. This includes having little or no access to feminine hygiene solutions.
That’s why Vanessa, along with her two sisters, co-founded Freedom Cups, a social start-up providing women in underprivileged communities with menstrual cups. Designed after a “buy one, give one” model, Freedom Cups are made of medical-grade silicone and can be reused for up to 12 hours each time, making them ideal especially for those living in rural areas with no toilets, electricity or running water.
Also, priced 40 per cent lower than others in the market, each cup is made to last up to 15 years, replacing about 5,000 disposable sanitary products (the amount a woman uses on average in her lifetime).
Recalling her first project in the Philippines, Vanessa shares, “When we first visited, the village chief told us that we could only give them out to the married women because of the issue about virginity.”
Vanessa stresses that the objective of her team is to educate women about their bodies and the importance of sanitation and hygiene, and to that end, they are respectful of different cultural beliefs. She realised the impact these cups had when mothers came to them asking for cups for their teenage daughters, by the end of the week’s session.
Aside from the sisters making it to last year’s Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia list, Vanessa won the Commonwealth Youth Award for Asia this April. She’s also met with political bigwigs, including Barack Obama.
Vanessa says her next goal is to scale up. “Giving out cups individually is not going to help us reach the billions of other women who need our help. So now that we’ve laid the ground and we know what we’re doing, we’re looking for partners to help us bring these cups out to many more women!”