SINGAPORE - Ms Fatimah (not her real name), left her home for the Casa Raudha crisis shelter last month with her young child after her husband threatened to bludgeon her with a heavy metal object.
Ms Fatimah, who is in her 30s, got married some years ago. A few years into the marriage, her husband began to abuse her physically and sexually. He would often hit her on the head with hard objects and use religion to make her feel guilty when she refused to submit to his demands.
During the circuit breaker period, he became even more demanding. Early last month, he forced her to put her signature on a blank sheet of paper. When she refused, he threatened to hit her with a dumbbell.
That was the last straw.
A few days later, she left home with her child after telling her husband she was getting ice cream for her child. She ran from her block of flats to the nearest police station, something she describes as the "longest run" of her life.
Today, Ms Fatimah and her child are safe in Casa Raudha Women Home, one of four crisis shelters in Singapore funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).
The shelter helped her apply for a personal protection order (PPO) against her husband and gave her a roof over her head.
"When I first arrived at Casa Raudha, I was scared," says Ms Fatimah. "Now, I don't have to worry about food. I was also given a private room to stay in. I have found peace and safety here."
While home is for most people a safe place to hunker down during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is not so for survivors of family violence.
The crisis shelters have provided a safe haven for them especially during the circuit breaker period, which saw a 22 per cent rise in reports of family violence from April 7 to May 6 over the monthly average before the period.
The four crisis shelters take in a total of about 180 family violence cases on average each year, according to an MSF spokesman.
Says Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim: "MSF has been working closely with and supporting our partners, including the crisis shelters, during the circuit breaker period."
He says beyond providing refuge, crisis shelters support residents to recover from their trauma, develop resilience and prepare for reintegration into the community with more stable living arrangements.
Despite the rise in family violence reports, there is no increase in admissions to these shelters during the circuit breaker period compared with before, according to a check with MSF.
But not all survivors of family violence need to go into the shelters as they may have other accommodation options. They may also remain at their homes with safety measures in place, while being supported by a social worker.
For many survivors of domestic violence, seeking shelter is usually the last resort.
Ms Lorraine Lim, head of direct services at Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO), who manages Star Shelter, says in extreme cases, it is no longer safe to stay at home.
She says her residents have sustained severe injuries such as internal and external bruises, concussions and fractures. Many suffer from long-term post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety and depression.
"One of my residents lost her hearing because she was punched repeatedly on her ear," says Ms Lim.
"Another suffered partial loss of sight, while another struggled with severe migraine for years due to the constant beatings on her head. A few women had miscarriages from abdominal trauma."
Family violence can happen at any level of close relationships - perpetrators include spouses, partners, parents, children as well as siblings.
Shelter residents ask for help for a wide range of domestic ills which include verbal abuse, threats, harassment, intimidation and controlling behaviour such as limiting access to friends, relatives and finances.
Victims last year listed 4,224 types of violence in the 2,452 applications for personal protection orders (PPO) filed against family members.
The figure was a 21 per cent jump from the 3,497 types of violence reported in 2016, when 2,811 applications for PPOs were filed.
Madam Zaharah Ariff, founding member of Casa Raudha Home and manager, says that besides adults, children are also subjected to violence.
In many cases, intervention by the MSF Child Protective Service is needed due to physical abuse and the child is required to be removed from the home, she adds.
She says that in such cases, the mother would choose not to be separated from the child and opt to stay in a crisis shelter to continue to care for her child.
COVID-19 BRINGS OUT THE BEST IN SHELTER RESIDENTS
The coronavirus pandemic has added to the worries of some shelter residents, who have either lost their jobs or have had to stop work for the time being.
But shelter directors have observed that adversity has brought out the best in most residents, who are striking up friendships and consoling and helping one another.
Ms Theresa Wee, director of Anglican Family Centre, one of the MSF-funded crisis shelters, says: "A crisis brings out the best - or worst - in people and we are glad that we are seeing the 'best' from our residents despite their challenges and worries for their future."
One of her residents, Ms Tanya (not her real name), who lost her job during the circuit breaker, recently celebrated her birthday in the centre.
"I was not able to go out to celebrate my birthday with family and friends," says Tanya, who is in her 40s and has two schoolgoing children.
"But I was pleasantly surprised, and touched when a staff member from the shelter brought me a small piece of cake with a candle," she shares.
Madam Zaharah, Casa Raudha's manager, says residents are reminding one another to abide by the safety measures during the circuit breaker.
"We have seen that some women had even stepped up to help pregnant residents with their daily chores," she says.
She adds that one of her shelter's annual programmes, called Casa Raudha Gives Back, is a platform for residents to perform acts of kindness not only for fellow residents, but also strangers outside the shelter.
"When the residents took part in this project, they were still struggling with challenges such as applying for personal protection orders, attending court hearings and divorce proceedings or tending to their children's day-to-day needs," she adds.
One of Casa Raudha's residents, Latifah (not her real name), who is in her 40s, took part in the project by helping to sew 400 masks, some of which were given to underprivileged children.
For someone who had never put needle to thread, she said it was quite a crash course.
"We were also able to write words of motivation for the children. As a mother, I want my children to grow up in a safe and healthy environment and that is also my wish for other underprivileged children."
Ms Lim of Star Shelter says: "Acts of kindness among the residents and staff are a daily occurrence in the shelter."
She adds that despite their own struggles - or perhaps because of them - many residents are empathetic towards one another. Having experienced difficulties themselves, they are sensitive to the plight of others and try to help in whatever way they can.
"For example, one resident, despite her busy schedule as a cook, went out of her way to help another resident paint and clean her new flat.
"She took several days' leave from her work in order to help her friend move into her new home."
Ms Banu (not her real name), a resident at Star Shelter who has stopped working in retail during the circuit breaker, worries about her two children who will be sitting for national examinations this year
But she says that staff at the shelter have created an environment conducive to her children's studies. There is a room in the shelter reserved for residents' children for home-based learning (HBL), tuition and self-study.
Her children are allowed to use the study room well past 8pm for their virtual tuition classes.
Says Ms Banu: "I am grateful for the support of the staff and also very thankful for the time I get to spend with my children as I was not able to do so previously due to my hectic work schedule."
Ms Hui Mei (not her real name), a mother of two schoolgoing children, who have all been staying at the Good Shepherd Centre for two months, recounts how one of the residents used her culinary skills to plate up a treat to bring some cheer when morale took a dip in the shelter, especially for the young ones.
"One of them made burgers and french fries for residents' children because McDonald's outlets were closed at the time," says Hui Mei, in her 30s, who used to work at a hawker centre.
One of her most memorable moments was when shelter staff surprised her with recorded messages from her children on Mother's Day.
That made her realise that they had become more mature and understanding.
Tanya says: "Although I have lost my job, I have learnt a few more things about myself, such as how my children are my main focus and motivation. I have also experi- enced genuine love from staff and other residents."
CRISIS SHELTERS AND HELPLINES
Crisis shelters provide temporary accommodation for women and their children who require protection against family violence and have no alternative, safe living arrangements.
Apart from accommodation, the four crisis shelters funded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which are run by social service agencies, support their residents to recover from their trauma, develop resilience and reintegrate into the community with stable living arrangements.
The shelters also organise in-house self-development programmes such as individual and group counselling, art therapy, job upskilling or reskilling workshops, children's enrichment activities as well as health and fitness classes.
Most residents are referred to crisis shelters by social service agencies which manage cases of family violence, such as Family Service Centres, Family Violence Specialist Centres and Pave Integrated Services for Individual and Family Protection.
Some residents are also referred by other "touch-points", including hospitals, the Singapore Police Force and the courts.
If you are or know someone who is experiencing family violence, please call any of these helplines:
Pave Integrated Services for Individual and Family Protection: 6555-0390
Trans Safe Centre: 6449-9088
Care Corner Project StART: 6476-1482
Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre: 6445-0400
HEART @ Fei Yue Child Protection Specialist Centre: 6819-9170
ComCare hotline: 1800-222-0000
The National CARE hotline: 1800-202-6868
For urgent cases that require immediate assistance, please contact the police at 999.