Puja Kapai

2021 Winner

Hong Kong

“By honouring my work in advancing social justice in relation to race, gender and minority rights this Award renders visible the lived realities of all those who are routinely marginalised and experience systemic exclusion and discrimination”

Puja Kapai

Puja’s Story

Growing up as an ethnic minority in the racially homogenous society of Hong Kong, Puja Kapai faced barriers to education from an early age. Racial segregation in schools was common practice, so Puja enrolled in a public school with a high concentration of ethnic minority students. The school would become one of a handful of designated institutions for ethnic minority children. While her ethnic Chinese counterparts attended Cantonese lessons, a language that would enable them to pursue better jobs in the Hong Kong workforce, Puja was ushered into the music room for self-study sessions along with other ethnic minority students.

Despite this unequal footing, Puja has gone on to become a widely published researcher, lawyer, professor and social justice advocate. She combines in-depth empirical research with grassroots mobilization and advocacy to enact lasting change in Hong Kong. Her comprehensive report on the status of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong brought together extensive data to present—for the first time—how the systemic nature of racial discrimination is embedded across multiple domains, including education, employment and housing. Puja’s work demonstrates the importance of looking at interlocking factors, such as gender, race, age and immigration status, which, in turn, underscores the need for an intersectional approach to understanding the root causes of inequalities in Hong Kong.

Most impactful was Puja’s careful illustration of the detrimental effect segregated schools had on the lives of Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities, resulting in the loss of opportunities and deprivation across multiple domains. She presented this research to the Hong Kong government and to three United Nations treaty bodies reviewing Hong Kong’s obligations relating to racial discrimination, children’s rights and human rights more broadly. In 2014, as a direct result of Puja’s research and advocacy, and in collaboration with local non-governmental organizations leading the work on these issues, the Hong Kong government abolished the official policy designating separate schools for racial minority children, and the government introduced a Chinese Language Curriculum Second Language Learning Framework for public schools.

This is but one example of what a tremendous force for change Puja has become in her society. Her work addresses issues of education, domestic violence, children’s rights, gender-based violence, discrimination based on race, gender, religion and sexual orientation, and unconscious bias. Puja’s work has guided lawmakers, government departments and civil society to develop laws and policies using an intersectional approach, across a range of areas, to ensure equal protection for everyone. She has successfully advocated for the revision of governmental procedural guidelines for handling cases of child abuse, child maltreatment, domestic and sexual violence involving ethnic minorities, as well as the improvement of training programs for police officers handling cases involving ethnic minorities. Her research and advocacy have also led to targeted measures by the government to support ethnic minorities.

Having experienced the harmful effects of exclusion and prejudice first-hand, Puja works tirelessly to advance equal rights for all people in Hong Kong. Whether she is researching, advocating, mobilizing or teaching her students how to recognize and address the social justice issues happening around them, Puja is driven by her knowledge that every Hong Konger deserves equal respect and opportunity, and that her city’s laws and policies will be strengthened by their inclusion and recognition of their equal dignity.

While Hong Kong has a global reputation as an international hub, it is a racially homogenous city, with ethnic Chinese people making up about 92 percent of the population. Ethnic minorities account for 8 percent of Hong Kong’s population. Among them, 4.2 percent are foreign domestic workers on temporary work arrangements under a specific labour scheme, and 3.8 percent are longer-term resident ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities face limited opportunities, bias and systemic discrimination in many areas, including education, employment, housing and health care. Language barriers exacerbate the structural challenges minorities face. Without an education in Cantonese or Mandarin, ethnic minorities are more likely to work in low-paid positions. Poverty and unequal access to essential social services disproportionately affect these communities.

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