Some might not think that women’s rights are a pressing matter in Singapore. Women do, after all, enjoy many privileges that their counterparts in other countries do not: they can vote, they have the right to go out and work or stay home as they please. They are represented in some of the highest echelons of governance. They can walk on the streets at night with relative certainty.
But much less is said about the insidious aspects that continue to plague women in Singapore. A woman of the same education level and job ranking as a man still earns 6 percent less than him, and the expectation of domestic care often falls to a woman — no matter how accomplished or high-ranking she may be.
And something has to be said about the rash of voyeurism cases that have made headlines in recent times; often, the only thing more worrying than these cases are the community’s responses to them. Victim blaming is a common refrain — non-profit organisation Aware estimates that 1 in 10 respondents think that these women are ‘asking for it’.
President Margaret Thomas, a founding member of the organisation, believes that more Singaporeans should start subscribing to the idea of feminism and women’s rights.
“Feminism is, at its simplest, the belief that gender should not be a reason for any kind of discrimination,” she says.
As Aware celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, Thomas takes a look back on the state of women’s rights in Singapore — and tells us why there’s still a ways to go yet.
How far has Singapore come in terms of women’s rights since Aware was formed?
We’ve made progress in some areas. In 1985 there were just three women parliamentarians — today about a quarter of all MPs are women. Until 2009 we had no women Cabinet ministers, now we have three. And of course we have a female President. We have more women in top jobs in corporations, the civil service, running businesses, and so on. The gender wage gap has narrowed. It used to be as wide as around 30 percent, and now it is around 6 percent.
So we have made some progress towards gender equality. But the gaps are still there — in occupational distribution, wages, leadership roles. And most glaringly, for all the progress women have made, they are still the primary caregivers.
When a child and elderly parent needs care, it is usually the woman who takes time out from work to provide the care, even when her job is on par or even more important than her husband’s. In order to provide this care, women work part-time, or stop working. In Singapore, this means they don’t have salaries or have reduced income — and so they have less in their CPF accounts for their old age.
It is a real problem that we need to tackle more vigorously.
How do you think Singaporeans view the concept of feminism? Do you think they take it seriously, or do they see it as a conceptual thing that doesn’t have bearing?
Is feminism conceptual or abstract if you are paid less than your male colleague who is doing the same work as you? If you are the one, rather than your husband, who takes time off or leave to care for your child or elderly parent? If you face sexual harassment at work because some men think they have a right to say and do what they want with women? Or if you are filmed in the shower or as you ride an escalator because some man gets it off by doing that?
The list can go and on. ‘Women’s rights’ and gender equality are not abstract concepts. They are an everyday issue for many women.
How do we put it into practice and change the way things are done?
It takes time — and a lot of conscious effort — to change mindsets and habits and reflexes. The patriarchal systems and signals are pervasive. The media continues to be full of stereotyped ‘female’ and ‘male’ roles. Everywhere around us there continue to be the assumptions and presumptions about what girls and women do and what boys and men do.
How do we slowly erase these limiting stereotypes? We just have to keep chipping away at them. I would like to see gender equality worked into school curriculums, right from the start in pre-school and kindergartens.
Many people have the misconception that Aware is only about women’s rights. How would you describe the work that Aware does?
Aware’s mission is achieve gender equality — a society where gender is just another facet of a person and not a factor that leads to unequal opportunities, harassment and discrimination, sexual assault, domestic violence.
At what point would you consider Singapore to have achieve that goal — and what do you think needs to be done to get us to that stage?
When a question like this is no longer asked.
In Singapore, the gender gap has narrowed. The younger generations of Singaporeans are less fixed in their assumptions about their roles as women and as men.
But the playing field is still uneven. Women continue to have to grapple with obstacles such as caregiving responsibilities in the home, sexual harassment, and the glass ceiling at the workplace.
To get us to true gender equality, an important step is get this concept enshrined in our Constitution.
Our Constitution states that ‘there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law’. We should add ‘gender’ to that list — so that as a nation, we will be committed to the pursuit and practice of gender equality.
Aware celebrates its 35th anniversary with its Superwomen in Concert fundraiser on April 10. For tickets and more details, visit this link.
This story is part of A Magazine’s feature on women of note for International Women’s Day.