My Journey & Purpose – Child Activist Dr Hartini Zainudin

My Journey & Purpose – Child Activist Dr Hartini Zainudin

The world, my father used to say, is unfair. It is up to each and every one of us to try and help ourselves, first, and then help others.

"Always be kind and good to others," my mother says. You can judge a person by the way he or she treats a person of service.

So I listened, I watched and I muddled through life, looking for my way to make my mark, to champion and protect the vulnerable and the marginalised.

I am now, for all intents and purposes, a child activist!

I believe that all children have a right to love, live and have a meaningful and loving life, growing up. I believe that no matter how poor, all children deserve enough food to eat, access to the best public education out there, the right to a family and identity, and to play.

As adults, we have a collective duty and responsibility to safeguard all children and to ensure all children are happy and safe. As a community and a country, there is no ‘your children' versus 'our children’. It must always be our children. Protect our children, at all cost. Children are the best, and promise of what we could have in a fair and just world!

If I had one message for all children in the world, it would be this- be bold, dream big and most important, be the change you imagine for yourself! Never care what people think of you, never let anyone put you down, be respectful and kind, make mistakes, learn from mistakes and try harder. If you fall, get up, try again. Try to look for, listen to, celebrate your successes and failing is always an option.

Most importantly, never, ever wait for someone to change what's wrong- change it yourself and make it right in your space, amongst your community, your life.


Growing up, I had never been the smartest, fastest child. Sure, there were many things I loved to do- play the piano, take ballet classes, but my head was usually in the clouds or buried in a storybook or newspaper; I was forgetful, clumsy and awkward in the real world.

When I was 8, I wanted to be Tarzan and swing from tree to tree, while I charged through the jungle and saved the day. A friend told me that girls couldn’t be Tarzan. "Why not?" I asked? " because Tarzan was a boy!" she replied.

Why did Tarzan have to be a boy? Tarzan could be a girl too - I could be a girl Tarzan! And so I climbed my parent’s bookshelf, which went all the way to the ceiling and leapt across to catch the hanging lights in the middle of the living room. I caught the lights but promptly pulled the whole fixture down and crashed to the floor. At that exact moment, my parents walked in through the door. There were cuts and bruises and screaming, and I believe I was grounded but oh, that split second when I was Tarzan, not a boy or a girl jungle person! Just Tarzan!


There were times, I would observe little kids, selling cakes (like my father did when he was young and poor) and would buy as many spicy potato chips from poor children in the evenings, who rang the bell and waited at our gates. All my pocket money would go to buying and eating everything that the children sold. My parents were dismayed and predicted I would give all my money away if someone asked for it and have nothing to show for it.

My imagination allowed me to dream big and create fantastic stories and characters which allowed me to drift off and be who I wanted to be and land in any part of this world or next- a scientist, an explorer, a chef. My imagination and determination to be and do anything I imagined, gave me endless possibilities to difficult questions but it also got me into many difficult situations both in school and at home. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I spoke out of turn in class discussions, received detention for forgetting homework or doing something I wasn't suppose to. I was invincible... except when I didn’t see where I was going and promptly fell into the drain in front of me or walked into a wall or went to school without my school bag because I was too busy, being brave in my day dreams. There were many mistakes and hurt and embarrassment, and the daydreams were confined in safer places- in between doing my homework, right before I fell asleep or in between reading books. The awkwardness fell away as I got older in college and I spoke up more and said, when things were wrong.

When I was 17, I read about the hostages in Iran, held in the American embassy by student rebels, who had overturned the government and sent the Shah of Iran fleeing. During school recess, I daydreamed of rescuing the hostages, quieting the revolution and saving the day. I followed the news months later, reading everything I could about the horrible tragedy and admiring Jimmy Carter for his compassion and patience and thinking, when I grow up, I wanted to save people and help the repressed.

I didn’t understand politics or the dynamics of what happened in Iran but I knew there was a whole world waiting for me when I was done with school and there were opportunities for me to do something with my life- to explore, to learn about, to imagine and to act! To push myself and strive, even if I wasn't the smartest or the best. I just had to go out there and be bold and embrace my differentness; listen to the beat and march to my own song. I was always searching for causes and people I wanted to help, learn from, share with- soup kitchens, the homeless, children in inner city areas, children in foster care, working in the public libraries, gardening, painting with kids in an after-school programme but not quite comfortable with what I tried. I told myself, I would know what my cause would be- just keep trying and exploring.

It wasn’t until I came back to Malaysia in 2001, after being away for 20 years and wondering around a few more years that I realised I had come full circle and here was where I wanted to be and the children in Chow Kit were the cause and my life's purpose. Fighting for rights of marginalised children, carving out the safe space for them, was how I wanted to lend my voice and speak out. There was no time to be meek or wait for things to happen. I had to take the 'bull by the horns' and pitch in.

The rest is history. I find myself, looking back and being unable to remember much about my life before the work and children. We've grown from the 3-man show with 48 children in need, to a larger movement and greater cause- championing the rights of all children. I’ve jumped off brothel steps, being chased by angry adults with machetes, ran after children, shimmied down building drainpipes on the sides of walls, carried babies in distress while hailing taxis, fought with the police, welfare officers, hugged the police and welfare officers, begged ministers, shadowed funders, hounded the complacent and championed policies with other NGO colleagues and social activists. I’ve had my share of success and failures, lost children to the system and helped asked for new systems. And I'm only getting started minus the running, jumping and staying up too, too late.

I love my life- I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m a single working mum, with three children. It has its challenges. Homework, cooking, cleaning, PTA meetings with teachers, grocery shopping and court appearances, but it's a rich life and a good life with few regrets, and hope for the children. Things aren’t always going to be perfect and you’re never going to get it right the first few times but always try and never be afraid.

I end this with one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite poets:

“Write on your doors the saying wise and old,
"Be bold! Be bold!" and everywhere-- "Be bold;
Be not too bold!" Yet better the excess
Than the defect; better the more than less;
Better like Hector in the field to die,
Than like a perfumed Paris turn and fly,”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Complete Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Be bold for change!