Call for more help to protect migrant women from family violence in S'pore

Aware also said more could be done to give migrant women access to legal aid so that they can leave abusive family environments. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - While there is a raft of protections in place to ensure migrant women married to Singaporeans get support for family violence, activists say more can still be done.

Last month, the family violence task force proposed stepping up efforts to raise awareness of the support structures in place to help migrant women in cases of abuse.

In a report released on Sept 23, the task force noted the need to clearly communicate to migrant women that their Singaporean and permanent resident spouses cannot unilaterally cancel their passes without their consent.

The task force also suggested extending long-term visit passes (LTVP) by default for foreign spouses with children who are Singaporeans and permanent residents until their divorce or court proceedings are completed.

These were part of a slew of proposals in the report to better protect victims of family violence while also rehabilitating perpetrators and mending the family unit.

The president of United Women Singapore, Ms Georgette Tan, one of the members of the task force, said the recommendations sought to protect family violence victims regardless of their backgrounds, including their immigration status.

The recommendations, she said, focused on creating a "holistic ecosystem where there are trained resources and personnel to deal with the matter, as well as victim support and outreach".

In response to the report, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) told The Straits Times that while the proposals could help migrant women, more needs to be done. A spokesman for Aware said it received almost twice as many calls from migrant women about family violence compared with local women on its helpline from 2016 to 2018.

As many migrant women remain unaware that their spouses cannot unilaterally cancel their pass, Aware said the spouses "continue to use this threat as a means of inflicting psychological abuse" and preventing them from seeking help or filing a police report.

Aware recommended the establishment of a multilingual one-stop information portal for migrant women to easily access the information they need in a language in which they are fluent.

Aware also recommended that the extension of the LTVP be granted by default to all migrant spouses contesting divorce or court proceedings here, even in cases where they do not have children who are Singaporeans or permanent residents. "This would ensure that all migrant spouses have a fairer chance at contesting the divorce terms (if necessary) as they can physically be around to do so," the spokesman said.

Aware also said more could be done to give migrant women access to legal aid so that they can leave abusive family environments.

Aware called for migrant women to be given access to pro bono legal services available to Singaporeans.

"While a small number (of legal clinics and services) do offer services to migrant spouses, there should be greater state support to fund and expand their operations. Migrant spouses of citizens should also have the right to apply for and receive state-funded legal assistance through the Legal Aid Bureau," Aware said.

In response to queries from ST, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) said that in cases where their Singaporean or permanent resident partners do not renew their LTVP, migrant spouses can also be sponsored by another Singaporean or permanent resident who is at least 21 years old, such as adult children or relatives.

If they do not have any other suitable sponsors for the LTVP, ICA said it would consider if there are "mitigating factors" for them to stay in Singapore when renewing their LTVP or LTVP Plus.

The LTVP Plus is granted to spouses of Singaporeans and has a longer validity period.

The ICA spokesman said: "As recommended by the task force, ICA and the relevant agencies will review whether foreign spouses' LTVP or LTVP Plus can be renewed by default until the divorce or court proceedings are completed. We will also work with social service agencies to raise awareness among foreign spouses."

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