Gender equality still tops Aware's agenda

When outsiders seized control of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) six years ago, it seemed like the gender equality group's darkest hour.

Yet that event turned out to be just what it needed.

"Aware had been getting more and more tired," recalled executive director Corinna Lim. Energy was running low. New members and leaders were hard to find.

Ms Lim herself was then a corporate lawyer and a dormant member.

Then came the power grab at the annual general meeting of March 2009. A group of mostly Christian newcomers swept the executive committee, in a plan motivated by disapproval of what they perceived to be Aware's position on homosexuality and a sexuality education programme it ran in schools.

In response, long-time members and new allies rallied around Aware's "old guard". Membership swelled, culminating in an extraordinary general meeting where a vote of no confidence was passed on the new leadership.

After the society was reclaimed successfully, the momentum remained. "We had a second wind," said Ms Lim, 50.

Aware took steps right away to run a tighter ship. The Constitution was amended to prevent power grabs, with a new two-year minimum before members can stand for election. A nominations committee now looks for and vets potential leaders. Ms Lim herself was hired as Aware's first executive director in 2010.

Today, all its plans are for expansion: building ties with other organisations, offering more training programmes, and doing more outreach.

Membership peaked at 3,000 in the lead-up to the 2009 EGM, but after the old guard returned, the numbers fell again. "But it did bring us members who stayed," noted Ms Lim.

Aware now has 500 members and 300 volunteers, twice the numbers before the 2009 AGM. It has 16 full-time staff members, compared with just six before. And its net assets stand at $2.4 million, six times the previous $400,000.

All this is helping the group to do more in the three areas of its work: education and training, support services, and research and advocacy.

This year, it wants to expand its training efforts, now run by one full-timer and several volunteer trainers.

Aware could not offer its sexuality education programme in government schools after 2009, but still conducts workshops in private schools.

Corporate training began in 2010 and includes workshops for companies on workplace sexual harrassment and diversity. It aims to identify new training opportunities.

Its support services - from a helpline to free legal clinics - have been there since the early years and are growing. Last year, it opened a drop-in Sexual Assault Care Centre for women victims.

The long-term aim is to tie up with other organisations which handle such cases, such as hospitals and the police, so victims get support every step of the way.

As for advocacy, Aware has increasingly looked beyond pitching its views mainly to policymakers in Government.

"In the past, a lot of the changing of mindsets was done at the policy level," said Ms Lim. But with few overtly discriminatory laws remaining, Aware is reaching out more to the community on issues such as domestic violence and healthy relationships.

In 2013, it started its first long-term community engagement project, We Can! Through workshops and interactive theatre, the campaign challenges attitudes that tolerate violence against women.

Men can join Aware as associate members but cannot vote or stand for election. As Aware reaches out more to men interested in gender equality, this restricted form of membership might have to be reviewed, she added.

"We are starting to see more men being interested, but you need men to bring other men in. When it's a woman telling a man, it's very difficult. We need to develop a core of male feminists," said Ms Lim.

Gender equality in Singapore still has far to go, say Aware veterans, pointing to issues such as under-representation of women in business and politics, and unfair gender expectations.

They note that the issues which sparked Aware's formation in 1985 remain today.

Then, it was the unpopular 1984 "graduate mothers" scheme which gave financial incentives and school admission privileges to children of graduate mothers. The scheme was scrapped after protests from those who attacked it as elitist and discriminatory.

"It was anger at first that got us going, the sense that we couldn't let these people keep deciding for us," said co-founder and current board member Margaret Thomas.

But the idea that women have a duty to reproduce persists today, she added.

So do unequal expectations, said Dr Vivienne Wee, a co-founder and current research and advocacy director. "The rules of the game are still not in favour of women, because they are still expected to take on caregiving as their natural responsibility."

As Singapore's population ages, this assumption could become even more damaging, as women are expected to shoulder the burdens of childcare and eldercare, she added.

Many women also face the same problems as before, as seen from the calls to Aware's helpline, now in its 25th year.

"It's a bit sad that we're still getting calls from women of the same type that we got 25 years ago: domestic violence, marital problems, sexual assault," said Dr Wee, 63. "We're still here because the problems still need to be solved. If one day, Aware isn't needed, that would be good news."

Aware president Winifred Loh thinks the changes made since 2009 should help see the group through its next 30 years.

"We came out much stronger," said Ms Loh, 51, a human resource practitioner, who is married and into her second term as president. "We haven't changed our ideals of gender equality and inclusiveness, but we pursue them a lot more strategically now, and we have more resources to do so."

The conflict of 2009 left some viewing Aware as anti-religious and pro-homosexual.

But Ms Loh, who is Catholic, pointed out that many of the women in Aware have religions, and the group has not shut itself off from religious groups.

She maintained too that Aware does not have an agenda to push for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. But in its gender equality efforts, it exists to support all women, in all aspects of their lives.

"Many of the general issues we address affect LGBT women too. Workplace sexism, sexual violence - if this affects even one LGBT woman, then of course we will have to support them," she said.

Aware also shows support at events such as the annual Pink Dot LGBT gathering. "We do want to show solidarity, because we are all about inclusion," she said.

But she emphasised the strides made to expand support services, start new outreach efforts, and be "more robust" in advocacy work. "I think we've done a lot to move on," said Ms Loh.

It is more active in making its views heard in print and on social media, to show that it is "working for women across all the various issues".

"I think we've proven ourselves, that we're focused very much on our cause of gender equality," she said.

janiceh@sph.com.sg