Dr Hartini Zainudin or Dr Tini as she is fondly known is no stranger to the humanitarian community or among social activists. Her involvement in the protection of marginalised children has lasted for more than three decades.
Since her college days in the United States, she has worked with underprivileged children and in refugee camps. That was the start of her meaningful journey in engaging with high-risk students from the five city boroughs. Despite the experience overseas, it wasn’t in her wildest dream to be working with children in Malaysia.
I never thought I’d have to come home and work with children in Malaysia; I always thought I’d be working with children abroad, in refugee camps. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
However, that soon changed. After 20 years of residing in the States, Dr Hartini decided to return to Malaysia in 2005 partly due to her father’s illness and propelled by a personal obligation to apply what she learned abroad. Her father passed away soon after.
I was so distraught and traumatised at the death of my father – but I believed that something good had to come out of it. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Coping with grief led her to be involved in Nur Salam, a charity organisation that helps underprivileged children in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. Since then, she has not looked back.
I have worked with children since I was 18. I got really involved in child rights when I came home to Malaysia from the US in 2005 and started volunteering at Nur Salam in Chow Kit, a charity organisation to help underprivileged children in Kuala Lumpur. My work on statelessness started then and Yayasan Chow Kit was born from Nur Salam in 2011. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Her Journey Into Motherhood
Dr Hartini’s efforts with marginalised children is well known via the establishment of Yayasan Chow Kit, but outside of work hours, her involvement with children continues as she pours into the lives of children she calls her own.
She is a mother to 5 children, Zaid (16), Salem (25), Zara (14), Khairy (16), Haniff (13) and Dr Hartini is in the process of adopting Shazali, a 14 year old boy.
This ‘supermom’ is a single mother; have always been and still is.
Never in a million years would I imagine being the mother to four children, without a husband by my side, in the toughest of cases and the worst of situations. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
She stumbled into motherhood at the time she was attempting to make ends meet.
I fell into adoption, I didn’t plan it at all. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Zaid, 16 now, is the first of the troop, and was adopted when he was a baby.
His (Zaid’s) mother said she was going to put him up for adoption. I was trying to find a family for him but he didn’t have a birth certificate which made it difficult for anyone to legally adopt him. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
At the time of adoption, Dr Hartini was absolutely new to motherhood. Thankfully, she had a wonderful mother to call on for help and together, they mothered her first child.
I called my mum and said I needed help. She (mum) had not met him (Zaid), so I decided to dress him up as cute as I could to win my mother’s heart, as she didn’t know she was going to be a babysitter. I brought him over to her and said, ‘Hi mum, here’s your grandson. I need to go to work.’ – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Motherhood Isn’t A Bed Of Roses
Motherhood is a thorny path, and for a single mother, the struggle is two-fold. Even though Hartini does not embody the stereotypical image of a mother owing to her late involvement in motherhood, she is a mother nonetheless, doing her very best for her children.
Motherhood in my case is definitely not defined by age – I adopted my first child at 45 years old. I would be what some call an older mother too – it bothers me sometimes, because the image of who should be a mother is stereotypically ingrained in our society, And I’m a single, working mum. I think some Malaysians think I’m doing okay considering I’m a working, single, eccentric woman but to me, I’m just a mum, doing the best she can. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Dr Hartini emphasised the social support that has been substantial in helping her juggle motherhood and work.
I have an amazing support system, and I’m so thankful for that. My mother and siblings are always there to lend me a helping hand to look after my kids when I have to run out for work. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
She feels that mothers, especially single mothers, are due more appreciation than they currently receive. It is a known fact that it takes more than an individual or even a couple to raise a child. Every little support goes a long way.
Love That Exceeds Blood Ties
Just like any new mother, Dr Hartini had to learn the ropes of caring for a newborn and she recounts the challenges faced while on the steep learning curve of parenthood.
I was so hopeless at feeding him. It took me a while to figure out the ratio of water to milk powder. Then I saw somewhere that babies like frozen grapes, but nobody said you had to cut the grapes. So I gave Zaid the whole frozen grape and later, he literally pooped it out in whole. I must say I wasn’t the best of mums. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
But the setbacks and learning curves she faced did not deter her. Zara, 14, came into her life through unconventional circumstances. Zara was rescued from child traffickers in 2010.
Her experience is told in Al Jazeera’s ‘Malaysia: Babies for Sale, 101 East’, where Dr Hartini was caught unaware in the web of baby-selling by accident. She did not hesitate to make a decision that ultimately saved Zara’s life.
My daughter (Zara) whom I adopted, was stateless and is still stateless. The way we found each other was quite traumatic for me as she came to me as a victim by way of a baby-selling syndicate – to this day, she does not have the proper documents as I have refused to buy documents for her. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
With a lack of birth certificate, as Dr Hartini refused to purchase the document from the child traffickers, it has been a struggle waiting for Zara’s Malaysian citizenship application to be approved. Till today, Zara remains stateless and conversations about her citizenship becomes a sensitive topic for discussion.
I’m a little sensitive about this. It’s so frustrating. I don’t know what to tell her and she’s getting older. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
The hurdles and heartaches of raising children are at times inevitable. For Dr Hartini, the pain is tangible and in the case of Salem, her eldest child, it meant letting him go and hoping for the best.
Salem, he’s now 25 but I haven’t seen him for ages. He has been doing drugs since he was 7 years old. After sending him to a drug rehabilitation centre for 8 times and after 8 times of running away, I made a deal to see him outside the Speedy store on Jalan Bukit Bintang but I haven’t seen him in more than 8 years. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Despite the adage of blood being thicker than water, Dr Hartini’s love and devotion to her children contradict it. She has proven that her genuine love and care for vulnerable children is not just mere work, a label or a position, but it is who she is. Love is her way of life.
I have never felt like I need to share DNA to care for a child – it’s part of what you do right? Especially if you work with children and am an advocate for adoption. The buck starts and stops with me! But if duty came first, love followed immediately. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Since becoming a mother, Dr Hartini has held onto the words of wisdom by her mother in prioritising the children she cares for.
My mother once said to me, You decided to be a mother and take on the responsibilities; your priorities have to be that your children come first. – Dr Hartini Zainudin 
But, as her children grew up and became more mature, the role is set to reverse. Her children are taking care of her in their special way and never ceases to put a smile on her face after a long day at work.
They nag at me – ‘don’t do this, drink your water, get some sleep.’ I get the sweetest handmade cards and unexpected presents from saved up pocket money. It’s knowing someone is waiting for you when you come home after a long day at work. Or Haniff comes when you hold him even though he’s blind and has cerebral palsy when I go visit. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Her Continuous Fight To Protect Vulnerable Children
To Dr Hartini, her children are the centre of her universe. At times, she believes that her children had chosen her to protect them and nurture them.
Despite the harsh realities of this world and Zara, who is still battling to receive her Malaysian citizenship, Dr Hartini is doing her level-best to provide them with the childhood and life they deserve, one that is instilled with curiosity and wonder.
My children, they all have dreams. As their mother, there is this innocence in their childhood that I need to protect, and there’s always this lingering fear that I will fail as their mother to do so. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Dr Hartini never gives up on fighting for Zara’s citizenship, a rejection only means trying harder the next time around. Having first-hand experience with Zara, she empathises with parents with the same struggle and hopes that there would be fewer stateless children in Malaysia.
My life as the mother of a stateless child is joyful, scary, frustrating, and sometimes different because you can’t help but think about the repercussions and how the law will not protect your child. It is terrifying and breaks your heart. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
But most of the time, parenting is just business as usual.
Yet in many ways, parenting is just the same: Zara has to do her homework, she drives me nuts, and sometimes she talks too much. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Best Foot Forward
Motherhood isn’t a bed of roses, it isn’t an easy job, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. It has made me who I am and kept me grounded. I think there are blessings even in difficult times. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
She continues to champion issues related to the marginalised children such as statelessness and baby selling.
Professionally, I’d love to see more being done towards addressing the issues of statelessness and moving towards obtaining nationality for them, and also highlighting the issues with baby-selling which is also tied to statelessness. I just wish we had fewer children crying and feeling bad because they are stateless. I have hope, we will try. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Despite her mistakes, along the way, she is a mother through and through, and like many other mothers, she fosters dreams and hopes for her children, both of whom she had adopted and children at Yayasan Chow Kit.
I hope that my children will turn out to be happy, successful, creative, articulate children with good hearts and heads who do the best they can with whatever choices and decisions they make. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Dr Hartini ‘s dreams include relocating Yayasan Chow Kit to a better building and Zara receiving her citizenship. One of her dreams may soon come to life, she had found the site of the foundation’s new one-stop safe space for minors regardless of nationality or race.
It’s a huge new space – we can accommodate the 121 children from both centres plus have extra room for our own urban garden, programmes and space for our alumni, the library we want to build with books the kids want and have listed for us. – Dr Hartini Zainudin
Dr Hartini’s life encapsulates all the good characteristics of a mother – selfless love, commitment, grace and sacrifice. Though motherhood found her later on in life, it has made her life all the more meaningful. She has defied the conventional and because of her commitment to her five children, their futures are a lot brighter.
Explore our sources:
- M.M.Victor. (2019). Love beyond blood ties and boundaries. The Sun Daily.Link
- S.A.Yong & P.Chin. (2017). I Didn’t Choose Motherhood, Motherhood Chose Me. Loyarburok. Link
- Lexis Nexis Facebook Post. (2019). Link
- S.J.Zaahid. (2022). Tired of poor treatment, a child rights activist looks to build the perfect safe space for youths in Chow Kit. Malay Mail. Link