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13 NGOs release report submitted to UN against gender inequality

SINGAPORE — After a delay due to disagreement on some issues, a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) released a report on Tuesday (Oct 3) calling out discrimination against single parents, foreign domestic workers, and women in unhappy marriages, among other individuals.

13 NGOs release report submitted to UN against gender inequality

While the recent appointment of Singapore’s first woman president, Mdm Halimah Yacob, was a “historical and symbolic” move, it may not reflect improved access to politics for women due to “restrictive qualifying criteria” and “controversial” constitutional changes, stated a joint report by NGOs in Singapore.

SINGAPORE — After a delay due to disagreement on some issues, a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) released a report on Tuesday (Oct 3) calling out discrimination against single parents, foreign domestic workers, and women in unhappy marriages, among other individuals.

This is the first time NGOs here have joined forces to submit a report to the United Nations against gender inequality in Singapore.

The 13 groups include the Association of Women for Action & Research, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers and social enterprise Daughters of Tomorrow.

TODAY understands some groups — such as the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association, the NTUC Women and Family Unit, and the People’s Association’s Women’s Integration Network — that were involved in the process of preparing the report since November 2014 decided not to support it. This is because they disagreed with contentious issues such as a proposed ban on polygamy, and the administration of Muslim law here.

A media conference on the report was called off last Friday, a few hours before it was to have taken place.

Despite some advances towards equality, “significant gender inequalities remain in Singapore”, wrote the coalition in its shadow report submitted to the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) on Monday (Oct 2).

One area highlighted was political and corporate leadership. The coalition called for numerical targets for appointing women to public positions, including the Cabinet, and “specific, timed action plans” to fulfil these goals.

While the recent appointment of Singapore’s first woman president, Mdm Halimah Yacob, was a “historical and symbolic” move, it may not reflect improved access to politics for women due to “restrictive qualifying criteria” and “controversial” constitutional changes, the report stated.

It also called for the Code of Corporate Governance to be amended to increase the proportion of women on corporate boards. Currently, a quarter of businesses here do not have women in their senior management, while women make up just over 8 per cent of boards in Singapore.

The coalition also wants all policy distinctions between single and married mothers to be removed. Differential treatment of children based on “legitimacy” must also be abolished, it argued.

“The state justifies discriminating against ‘illegitimate’ children by reference to a desire to promote strong marriages and the idea that parenthood within marriage is the desired and prevailing social norm,” it noted.

Single parents should be given greater access to public housing, the coalition said.

Currently, unwed mothers cannot apply for public housing under schemes intended for families until they reach the age of 35. Even then, if they require housing subsidies, they can only pick smaller flats in less accessible areas.

“Illegitimate” children — born to mothers not married to their biological fathers —are not eligible for cash gifts and tax reliefs available to other children, and are not considered Singaporean if their mother is not a citizen.

The notion of “family violence” should include emotional and financial abuse and the coalition wants the three-year time bar for divorces to be removed in cases of violence.

Currently, divorce applications cannot be filed within the first three years of marriage – a guideline that the coalition described as “unduly onerous” and potentially puts parties at risk of prolonged spousal abuse.

In the area of Muslim law, the coalition suggested giving Muslims the option to distribute estates according to Muslim or civil law. Allowing non-Muslim next-of-kin to inherit the estate of a deceased Muslim would offer relief to non-Muslim relatives of converts to Islam or non-Muslim spouses and children, it said.

The coalition reiterated calls by civil society groups to include foreign domestic workers in the Employment Act so that they are entitled to protection and benefits accorded to most workers here, such as public holidays and a cap of 44 working hours per week.

It echoed previous calls to repeal legislation prohibiting same-sex relations and marriage and review media policies to ensure that content representing the experiences of homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals is not censored.

Submitting a shadow report to a UN treaty body committee gives NGOs a platform to highlight issues not raised by their governments or point out where the government may be misleading the committee from the real situation.

The Singapore Government submitted its fifth periodic report to Cedaw in October 2015, noting how the Republic has made progress in key areas to improve the lives of women here. They include enhancing protection against harassment and boosting family justice through legislation in 2014.

A Government delegation will meet Cedaw in Geneva, Switzerland, on October 25 to discuss the report. Some months later, the committee will issue its observations and recommendations.

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