Fifty years ago, violence against women was not considered a social problem of any significance, in the public domain at least. The penal code acknowledged sexual violence against women and girls—such as rape, molestation and incest—and carried penalties ranging from fines to caning and jail time for offenders. Violence against any person was considered a crime, as long as it occurred in public, and women were not treated as a particular group requiring special protections under the law.
This masked a grim reality happening behind closed doors, in the very place where women should have felt safest: their homes.
Domestic violence, overwhelmingly perpetrated against women by their male relatives, was a chronic social ill that was largely condoned by society. The reasons stemmed partly from deeply-held gender stereotypes that cast women as subordinate to men, and from a general attitude that the issue was a ‘private family matter’. At the government policy level, there was also a notion of the family unit as a sacred building block of society, with the man as the “head of the household”. This led to reluctance by the state to intervene and criminalise domestic violence.
The Women’s Charter , which took effect in 1961, addressed gender imbalances by providing women with more protections in marriage and divorce, but was silent on domestic violence.
An introduction to the Women’s Charter
The Women’s Charter was a piece of legislation passed to protect the rights of women and girls in Singapore. It deals with issues such as polygamy, divorce and the division of matrimonial assets. It also provides for protection against domestic violence. It applies to all Singaporeans, with the exception of those married under Muslim law when it comes to divorce.Related themes Civil Society Politics Violence Family
Emerging from the shadows
The issue remained in the shadows until the 1980s, when members of the women’s movement began to shine a spotlight on the scale of the problem.
The newly formed Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) organised, as one of its very first events, a forum on violence against women in 1981. The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) followed up with a major research project on violence in the home, and a forum in 1986.
The state was still slow to act, but momentum was clearly building, propelled by the advocacy of women’s groups.
The state was still slow to act, but momentum was clearly building, propelled by the advocacy of women’s groups. In 1987, a Task Force Against Family Violence was set up by the SCWO, AWARE and the National Crime Prevention Council. It focused on public education, and led to a groundbreaking year-long awareness campaign—the ‘Stop Violence Against Women Campaign’. The campaign involved performances, dialogues and exhibitions in public areas like community centres and libraries, distributed information widely to raise awareness, and encouraged victims to break their silence.
These public activities enabled the issue to be brought before state institutions. Advocates called for changes in the law to provide better protection and services for victims. 1 The campaign culminated in the launch of a handbook by AWARE and the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers (SAWL) called Men, Women and Violence, intended as a guide for women on their legal rights. The handbook included strategies for coping with violence, and information on preventive measures, as well as existing police and legal proceedings.
The significance of the campaign was to give, for the first time, ‘public legitimacy to an issue hitherto confined to the private world of family, children and intimate relationships.’
“When the public campaign first started... and we went to various community centres and libraries with exhibitions and talks on violence, we were lucky to have an audience, so unresponsive was the environment to the problem of domestic violence,” Constance Singam, who was president of AWARE at the time, recalled. The significance of the campaign gave, for the first time, “public legitimacy to an issue hitherto confined to the private world of family, children and intimate relationships.” 2
A group of counsellors and social workers also came together to form the Society Against Family Violence (SAFV). They saw the need to tackle structural causes of violence by advocating for change onthe policy level, as well as offering training for fellow practitioners on helping clients who were victims.
Benny Bong, President and a founding member of SAFV, remembers how there was little to no recognition within the psychosocial services sector that violence against women was a major problem. No one was seeing the big picture, and it was common for practitioners to focus solely on their client’s behaviour and feelings.
“In fact, we even ‘blamed’ them in a way, by suggesting for instance how they could stop triggering their husbands’ violent outbursts.” — Benny Bong
They had many clients who were depressed or anxious, and who complained about abuse from their husbands. “But we never framed this within the context of domestic violence, we didn’t recognise or understand what our clients were going through at home and why they kept going back to their abusers. In fact, we even ‘blamed’ them in a way by suggesting for instance how they could stop triggering their husbands’ violent outbursts. The problem was that we were only engaging women, not men,” he said. “Not only did we not know how to deal with men as perpetrators, but the law didn’t compel them to get counselling so we didn’t even have them as clients.” 3
Addressing domestic violence
Legislative and policy changes
By the 1990s, NGO advocacy was beginning to bear fruit. Violence against women slowly began to receive recognition as a serious issue that needed the state’s attention. Two major developments in 1995 helped turn the tide.
First, Singapore became a member state of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which includes ending violence against women as a core focus. In its regular reports to the CEDAW Committee, the government would have to show progress in dealing with the issue, including implementing reforms in legislation and law enforcement.
What is CEDAW?
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations. It is often referred to as an international bill of rights for women.
All states that sign on to the Convention commit themselves to taking the necessary measures to end discrimination against women in all forms. This is a legally binding obligation. States are also required to submit national reports, at least every four years, on what they have done to comply with their treaty obligations.Related themes Civil Society Politics
Second, Kanwaljit Soin, a Nominated Member of Parliament and former AWARE President, put forward a Family Violence Bill that called for the criminalisation of domestic violence and for concrete policy measures to address the issue.
The Bill was ultimately defeated, but many of its provisions were subsequently captured in a landmark amendment to the Women’s Charter in 1996. Placed under a broader framework of ‘family’ violence, these provisions expanded protections for victims by widening the definition of violence beyond spouses and children to other family members, and including emotional and psychological harm on top of physical harm. 4 Victims could also obtain Personal Protection Orders (PPO) from a newly established Family Court—anyone who disregards a PPO made against him or her can be arrested without warrant and charged in a criminal court. The Court could issue mandatory counselling for both victims and perpetrators, and penalties were also increased—a fine and imprisonment up to six months for a first offence doubles for a second offence. 5
Anamah Tan, a founding member of the SAWL and former President of SCWO, feels the law put a much-needed focus on enforcement: “Enforcement is one area that Singapore does right—the PPO and the mandatory counselling, for example, helped make sure perpetrators got the message.” 6
While activists cautiously applauded this development, many felt the amendments did not go far enough. For example, forced or non-consensual sex between husband and wife, known as marital rape, was not considered an offence—an indication of persistent gender-biased attitudes, and the all-important preservation of the family unit. 7
“Imagine how terrifying it is to believe your abuser is not allowed near you, and then have him show up on your doorstep.” — Rachel Chung
Rachel Chung, an activist and domestic violence survivor, pointed to the PPO process as inadequate: “It is really difficult to get a PPO, because your abuser has to agree to it. This makes it almost impossible for many victims to get one. Furthermore, an abuser could get a PPO for six to eight weeks, but then he gets it lifted ‘for good behaviour’ after just two weeks! Imagine how terrifying it is to believe your abuser is not allowed near you, and then have him show up on your doorstep.” 8
With major changes in the legislative arena, policy changes followed suit. The government embarked on a multi-disciplinary and integrated framework called the ‘Many Helping Hands’ approach, which involved regular collaboration between government agencies, community and service organisations, and families.
The framework included a National Family Violence Networking System to link the police, the hospitals,the social service sector, the Courts and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (now called the Ministry of Social and Family Development) to provide an island-wide network of support access points for victims. It also set up a Family Violence Dialogue Group that connected the Police Force with various government agencies to examine policy provisions and services for families affected by violence. 9
Regular review of their procedures has helped significantly improve police management of family violence cases, especially in terms of the process of assisting victims, de-escalating violence, and referring victims to medical and other social services. New guidelines were established, for instance, that require Investigation Officers to give notice to victims or social workers on the release of perpetrators from police custody prior to their release, which helps to give victims more time to make safety plans if necessary. 10
Activists continued to work against this backdrop of legal and policy change. They aimed to change public consciousness about the nature of violence on the one hand, and to improve direct social services for victims on the other. For example, AWARE set up a helpline in 1991 to offer support to women in distress. In 1999, the SCWO set up the Star Shelter, the first secular women’s shelter in Singapore, while in the same year, the first family violence specialist centre—Promoting Alternatives to Violence(PAVE)—was established to work with both victims and perpetrators of violence. PAVE’s wide range of services include counselling and casework interventions, preventive programmes for families, legal advice, application for PPOs (through video conferencing), medical services, and support groups for victims, perpetrators and families affected by violence.
Family violence community service centres in Singapore
These are services available in Singapore for those in need of assistance.Family Service Centres (FSCs)
There are 43 FSCs in Singapore. To reach the nearest one, dial the ComCare hotline at 1800 222 0000.Family Violence Specialist Centres
- Promoting Alternatives to Violence (PAVE)
- TRANS SAFE Centre
- Care Corner Project StART
There are 4 crisis shelters in Singapore. Their locations cannot be disclosed to protect the safety of violence survivors.
- Singapore Anglican Community Services Family Care Center
- Good Shepherd Center
- Star Shelter
- Casa Raudha Women’s Home
A broadening view of violence
The 2000s saw a shift from the focus on domestic violence and sexual assault to other forms of violence against women, such as trafficking, abuse of migrant domestic workers, and workplace sexual harassment. Civil society organisations once again stepped up their advocacy with both the government and the general public to urge for better protections for women.
Changes to the legal climate have been impressive. In 2007, provisions in the penal code were revised to penalise marital rape—charges can now be filed, provided the spouses are living apart, proceedings for divorce or separation are in progress, and a PPO is in force against the perpetrator.
In 2011, Section 157(d) of the Evidence Act was repealed, in effect no longer allowing for evidence of a victim’s “immoral character” to be used during trial to question their credibility. Other amendments to the penal code addressed labour and sex trafficking in persons—changes criminalised commercial sex exploitation of anyone under 18 regardless of consent, and child sex tourism committed by Singaporeans abroad. Training was also provided to the police to help them better identify potential trafficking victims.
AWARE embarked on research on workplace sexual harassment in 2008 which found that more than 50 per cent of respondents to a randomised survey said they had experienced harassment at work. 11 The organisation followed up with another report in 2012, highlighting the inadequacies of the current system in protecting employees and supporting victims.
Their advocacy contributed to the Harassment Act passed in 2014. Cyberbullying and stalking are now covered under the law, and victims can seek protection orders against harassers. However, the law doesnot include penalties for employers.
Anti-trafficking efforts were also strengthened in 2014 with the passing of the Prevention Against Human Trafficking Bill Act that provides a concrete definition of trafficking, and empowers enforcement agencies with the necessary powers to investigate and prosecute trafficking activities. A year later, Singapore acceded to the UN protocol against trafficking in persons.
But critics argue that the 2014 legislation falls short when it comes to comprehensive support for victims. Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), decries the lack of comprehensive victim protections, as well as the lack of guarantees that victims will not be prosecuted for offences inadvertently committed while in a trafficked or forced labour situation. “The victim is not guaranteed the right to work,” he said in an email interview for this feature. “Key indicators of trafficking, such as deception and forced labour are not defined, which makes us concerned that victims will not be identified.”
He points to the inadequate support system that is currently in place: “There are few dedicated shelters for victims of violence and free counselling services for migrants who experience trauma is limited. Medical services are not free and they have little means to support their families while they are assisting the authorities in investigations.” 12
Shifting attitudes, albeit too slowly
Although they acknowledge improvements in policy and legislation, many advocates feel that the scale of the problem has not sufficiently diminished. Singaporean society has not progressed in tandem with policy changes, especially in terms of attitudes that continue to tolerate violence and discriminationagainst women, and cast traditional ideas of ‘morality’ on women’s behaviour.
“When you say 'gender inequality' or 'violence against women' here, most people go, "Where got?" That's a problem,” said Kokila Annamalai, who runs the We Can! campaign
“Victim-blaming is a huge problem, and it comes from so many different groups,” said Rachel Chung. 13 “Your family, your friends, social media, random people you come into contact with – there’s always anassumption that the victim did something to provoke the abuse. People still ask me for instance, why I took so long to leave my husband, or why I married him in the first place, without knowing anything about the circumstances... [T]his is the main reason why women are not coming forward. Not only are they afraid to speak up because of the stigma, but they also begin to believe what their abusers are saying—that it’s their fault—especially when their self-esteem is already so low.”
Since the 2000s, a lot more advocacy by the women’s movement has gone beyond basic awareness-raising towards education and the changing of mindsets. Among them is a growing number of young women who are making themselves heard both on social media and in public campaigns such as No to Rape, SlutWalk Singapore and We Can! End All Violence Against Women, the local chapter of a global movement.
“When you say 'gender inequality’ or 'violence against women' here, most people go, "Where got?" That's a problem,” said Kokila Annamalai, who runs the WeCan! campaign. 14 She added that inequality and violence are "hidden in plain sight” because of a refusal by society and the state to discuss gender and sexuality in schools, at the workplace, and in parliament.
Her desire to get involved comes from both indignation over inequalities and injustices that continue in Singaporean society—including those that lead to violence against women—and a belief in the possibility of change. “I care because I can’t accept present realities that confront women and other marginalised groups; and because I believe in the power of individual and collective action to bring change.”
“Abuse can be found in every society,” said Jolovan Wham, “but what is critical is what the state and the community does when it happens. In this respect, we still have a long way to go."
- Constance Singam. “Working for Gender Equality: An AWARE Experience.” In Building Social Space in Singapore, 1st ed., edited by Constance Singam et al.,.45-52. Singapore: Select Publishing, 2002.
- See note 1
- Bong, Benny. Interview with Leigh Pasqual, 11 December 2014.
- Amirthalingam, K. (2003) “A Feminist Critique of Domestic Violence Laws in Singapore and Malaysia.” ARI Working Paper Series 6 (2003): 17.
- Tan, Anamah. “Casting Off the Shroud: Combating Domestic Violence Against Women.” Paper presented at the Asia Women Lawyers’ Conference, Bangalore, India, 2007.
- Tan, Anamah. Interview with Leigh Pasqual, 22 December 2014.
- See note 4.
- Chung, Rachel. Interview with Leigh Pasqual, 11 January 2015.
- “Protecting Families from Family Violence: The Singapore Experience.” Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, 2009.
- Goh, Lee Gan. “The Singapore Strategy in Managing Family Violence.” In Protecting Families from Violence: the Singapore Experience, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, 2009.
- “Workplace Sexual Harassment Report.” Association of Women for Action and Research, 2008.
- Wham, Jolovan. Email interview with Leigh Pasqual, March 2015.
- See note 8.
- Annamalai, Kokila. Email interview with Leigh Pasqual.