Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter
Linda To is a Founding Member and Executive Director of HER Fund, an organization in Hong Kong that mobilizes resources and invests in empowering women and girls to create change in communities for gender equality. With over 20 years of work experience for the advancement of women’s rights, Linda is devoted to the education of young people on gender equality and social justice. She has spent over 15 years supervising social work placement students in various universities, mostly practicing in women’s work settings or community settings.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Linda To: I was a trained social worker many years ago and I’ve been working with the community. Also I’ve worked in a women’s shelter in Hong Kong called Harmony House, a shelter for women facing domestic violence. I have been in the social work field for quite some time and I am now supervising social work students who are practicing fieldwork at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Another part-time job is my role as Executive Director of HER Fund, and I’m also a founding member of the fund. I have been involved with women’s work for over 25 years because I’ve worked with Harmony House and have also worked with the Women Workers’ Association in Hong Kong and also have been working with some low-income women in the Confederation of Trade Unions. I’ve been involved voluntarily as a Board Member and an Executive Committee Member of various women’s organizations too.
Women LEAD: You are the Executive Director of HER Fund, a nonprofit organization in Hong Kong that empowers women and girls to create change in communities for gender equality. Can you tell me more about HER Fund and its impact?
Linda To: HER Fund is a community fund (not a family foundation or corporate foundation) started by a group of women activists. We have been involved with women’s work, in promoting rights and gender equality for some time. We realized that there are not many resources, especially financial resources like funding support to those projects for women’s rights advocacy, particularly advocacy and campaigning work in Hong Kong. In the past, there are some funders from overseas willing to give funding to rights-based work in Hong Kong, but as Hong Kong became more “ economically developed,” these funders do not take Hong Kong as their priority funding geographical area. So it’s not been easy to find funding support. In 2002, the founding members planned to start a local women’s fund, but we didn’t have any money to start with. So we started searching and we realized that there are international women’s funds willing to support the startup of some women’s local funds in different countries and different places. We asked for some startup grants from them and HER Fund started in 2004.
Our main work is to give small grants, raise donations through different means, and run capacity building for our grantees, because there are a lot of small and self-help women’s organizations in Hong Kong and those we supported are from the marginalized sector so they face discrimination or do not have a voice in society. We have also run capacity building for strengthening their organizational capacities so that they learn how to fundraise for their own organization and how to build their organization and develop membership. These kinds of capacities are very important for the group to sustain.
We have given over 90 grants to support projects and small organizations. The money that we have made is over HK$3 million and we also have seen small women’s self-help groups able to develop for a few years and were then able to access more funding from bigger funders. We are also giving seed grants for new initiatives to start up. It is very important in our society to have new initiatives.
Women LEAD: What motivates you to advance women’s and girls’ rights in Hong Kong?
Linda To: I think it’s because I’ve been working with various women’s groups on women’s issues. I’ve seen that there is a need for us to have a local women’s fund so that we can mobilize resources for doing the work. Secondly, in Hong Kong society, women’s issues have not been really taken on board. Although we have a Women’s Commission in place, the Women’s Commissions is a consultative body and has no actual power in decision-making on policies. There aren’t many resources for developing women’s rights works so that’s our motivation to start a women’s fund. We hope that the funds can generate more resources and support more projects to work on defending women’s rights.
Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Linda To: If we are talking about raising women’s status and raising women’s voices, empowerment is the first step. Women have to be sure of themselves, recognizing their own abilities, and also taking control of what’s happening around them – so I think empowerment is very important. Also, I think due to gender stereotypes, women’s roles are mostly very submissive, dependent and secondary, and sometimes we are unsure of our own abilities. Women’s empowerment is a process wherein women realize their abilities and strengths to change.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?
Linda To: When I see this question, I immediately think of my mother. My mother is very close to me; she taught me to care for others. She is a role model. I think that from the way I’ve grown up, my mother has given me a lot of space and autonomy and that’s how I can think out of the box, think in different ways and develop more critical and alternate thinking.
Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future women leaders?
Linda To: My advice would be to do what you believe in and you have to dare to change because sometimes we have a lot of blocks not just from society but from within ourselves as well. We have the fear to try new things so daring to change requires determination and commitment.