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UN committee renews calls for gender equality in S’pore

SINGAPORE — A United Nations (UN) committee is calling for Singapore to legislate a definition and prohibition of all forms of discrimination against women.

UN committee renews calls for gender equality in S’pore

A United Nations (UN) committee is calling for the Republic to legislate a definition and prohibition of all forms of discrimination against women. TODAY file photo

SINGAPORE — A United Nations (UN) committee is calling for Singapore to legislate a definition and prohibition of all forms of discrimination against women.

The appeal was first registered in 2011, during the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw). This year, the Cedaw committee noted that Singapore’s Constitution forbids discrimination only on grounds of “religion, race, descent or place of birth”.

The committee tabled a raft of recommendations after its 68th meeting which concluded in Geneva, Switzerland last week. The event was attended by a delegation from the Singapore Government, led by Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Family and Social Development.

The proposals from the committee include eliminating the “head of household” concept in all policy- and decision-making to promote equal sharing of family responsibilities, giving domestic workers the same labour protections as other workers, abolishing marital immunity for rape, and tackling gender stereotypes and rape, among others.

In its report made public on Tuesday (Nov 21), it raised concerns such as the lack of mechanisms to ensure that “gender mainstreaming” is applied in developing laws, policies and programmes here.

The UN defines “gender mainstreaming” as a pluralistic public policy strategy that values the diversity among men and women.

The committee said that the Singapore Government should take concrete steps to adopt an action plan, with the active participation of civil society, to put into practice the committee’s recommendations, and improve data collection to better identify specific areas where women are under-represented or disadvantaged.

It also urged the Government to set up an “independent national human rights institution” to promote and protect women’s rights and gender equality.

Singapore has been a party to the Convention since 1995. All signatories are required to submit every four years a report to the Cedaw committee about what has been done to comply with and implement provisions of the Convention.

The committee also encourages non-government organisations (NGOs) to submit their own reports about their observations in their countries. In October, a coalition of 13 NGOs here presented such a report, calling out discrimination against single parents, foreign domestic workers, and women in unhappy marriages, among other individuals.

LACK OF UNDERSTANDING

In Singapore’s case, the committee noted the lack of data on violence against women, and under-reporting of such cases due to stigma and “lack of understanding of gender-based violence among the population at large, as well as among law enforcement officials”.

Domestic violence and marital rape should be criminalised, and the definition of rape should cover any non-consensual sexual act, it added.

Laws should also be revised to ease the burden of proof for married or divorced women when applying for personal protection orders, given that these orders are not the result of criminal findings, but interim orders to end violence.

Referring to the Employment Act, it recommended that female foreign domestic workers be granted the same level of protection and benefits as other workers, “particularly with regard to holidays, maximum weekly working hours (and) regular days of rest”.

It would also like the authorities ease the criteria for these workers to change employers, by not requiring them to assist in investigations, especially if they have experienced exploitation and abuse.

Employers should ensure that victims of sexual harassment in the workplace have access to effective complaints procedures, protection and recourse to remedies.

Stressing the “crucial role” legislation plays in ensuring that the Convention is fully in force, the report said: “(The committee) invites the Parliament, in line with its mandate, to take the necessary steps regarding the implementation of the present concluding observations between now and the next reporting period under the Convention.”

‘EXPAND ROLE BEYOND CAREGIVING’

One other concern the committee had was the “persistence of discriminatory stereotypes” about women’s role as primary caregivers, and the hierarchical view of the “head of household” concept here.

Singapore should strengthen measures to enhance the provision of professional caregiving services, to enable women to “expand their role beyond caregiving”, it urged.

All foreign wives of Singapore citizens should be granted the long-term visit pass to protect their rights to work and access healthcare subsidies here.

Permanent residency should also be granted automatically to all qualified foreign spouses, it said, and the authorities could make the criteria more transparent.

There could be more training programmes for women aspiring to enter politics, and girls could be encouraged to choose “non-traditional” fields of study and career paths, such as engineering, electronics and information technology, to “eliminate traditional stereotypes and structural barriers”, the committee said.

The committee also recommended that lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women be protected against discrimination through campaigns to raise awareness and combat discriminatory stereotypes.

While it acknowledged the “significant efforts” that the Government has made to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, the committee is concerned that Singapore continues to be a destination and transit country for trafficking women and girls for sexual and labour exploitation.

It urged the Government to enhance cooperation with other countries to prevent such trafficking, ensure that perpetrators of such crimes are effectively identified and punished, as well as to give victims adequate support.

Responding on Thursday (Nov 23), the Ministry of Social and Family Development said the Cedaw Committee acknowledged Singapore’s efforts in promoting gender equality and protecting the rights of women.

Assoc Prof Faishal had said to the committee that Singapore adopts a practical and outcomes-based approach to the realisation of human rights, which he said are realised within a specific cultural, social, economic and historical context.

“We will consider the Committee’s recommendations when reviewing our policies to address the gaps in our society. We will also continue to engage the relevant stakeholders, including civil society, in our shared goal to facilitate women’s progress in Singapore,” said the ministry.

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