Atmosphere of fear prevents pregnant maids from seeking help

We were concerned to read that a foreign domestic worker was arrested after giving birth to a stillborn baby ("Maid hides her stillborn baby in drawer"; Oct 21).

According to Article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Singapore is party, all pregnant and postnatal women should have access to appropriate support and healthcare.

We are concerned that societal prejudice and labour regulations create an atmosphere of fear and stigma that prevents pregnant and postnatal domestic workers from receiving the support that they need.

Pregnancy and childbirth are prohibited under a domestic worker's work pass. Under the law, employers are technically required to report pregnancies to the Ministry of Manpower, leading to cancellation of the work permit and the worker's deportation.

It is, therefore, very hard for a domestic worker to raise the matter of her pregnancy, as her livelihood is at risk.

Moreover, the idea of a domestic worker's pregnancy is negatively perceived by Singaporeans. A domestic worker may fear that raising the issue will trigger anger and abuse from her employer.

In view of this, the worker's attempts to hide her pregnancy and birth were likely the acts of someone who felt backed into a corner with no other options. We question whether it is fair to further penalise a woman in this position with the threat of prosecution under criminal law.

Moreover, stillbirth is frequently a physically and emotionally traumatising experience, which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in subsequent pregnancies.

A woman who has endured this urgently needs physical and mental healthcare, without the further trauma of arrest and criminal investigations into an understandable act of desperation.

This is not the first reported case of a foreign domestic worker becoming pregnant and attempting to conceal her childbirth, and it likely will not be the last.

In 2010, it was reported that 100 workers are deported each year ("100 pregnant maids sent home a year"; Sept 29, 2010). Some women may also turn to black-market products in an attempt to terminate their pregnancy themselves, which is dangerous.

We urge the Government to consider the stigma and harm that the policy of pregnancy deportation creates. At the very least, pregnant and postnatal women who find themselves in this difficult situation should not be subject to criminal proceedings as a result.

Goh Li Sian (Ms)

Research and Advocacy Coordinator

Association of Women for Action and Research