Review of women’s issues: Challenges facing women highlighted by pandemic

Roles as mums and caregivers, spike in family violence point to need for review

Ms Sun Xueling, Ms Low Yen Ling and Ms Rahayu Mahzam at a virtual dialogue yesterday titled Conversations on Women Development, the first in a series that aims to gather feedback on issues that affect women at home, in school, the workplace and the c
Ms Sun Xueling, Ms Low Yen Ling and Ms Rahayu Mahzam at a virtual dialogue yesterday titled Conversations on Women Development, the first in a series that aims to gather feedback on issues that affect women at home, in school, the workplace and the community.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF SOCIAL AND FAMILY DEVELOPMENT

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a review of matters affecting women and equality - from protecting them from family violence to the indispensable roles they play as wives, mothers, caregivers and more.

Minister of State for Social and Family Development, and Education Sun Xueling yesterday said there was an increase in reports about family violence during the recent circuit breaker period and that is something "of concern to the authorities and to the larger society".

A new inter-agency task force that Ms Sun co-chairs was set up earlier this year to address similar issues.

She said: "Home is where our early education starts. It is where we learn about our values.

"I believe that as a society, we see family violence not as a domestic matter, but as a matter that we collectively have to prevent, and to penalise if necessary, so that women victims and other victims of family violence will be able to live happily, meaningfully and be protected, knowing that their safety is guaranteed."

Ms Sun spoke yesterday at a virtual dialogue titled Conversations on Women Development, the first in a series of upcoming sessions that aim to gather feedback on issues that affect women at home, in school, the workplace and in the community.

About 60 participants from youth groups and women's organisations attended the virtual session.

The ideas and suggestions gathered though these dialogues and discussions will be tabled as a White Paper in Parliament in the first half of next year.

The review to address gender inequality will be led by three women political officeholders - Ms Sun; Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth, and Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling; and Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam.

Ms Low said a participant at the dialogue spoke about how "we need to continue to resist perpetuating traditional gender roles that are very harmful stereotypes".

 
 
 
 

She said: "If anything, Covid-19 has really exacerbated this. When push comes to shove, it seems that women have to drop everything and gravitate to the home caregiver roles - caring for the elderly, caring for family, including extended family - but at the same time, also having to multitask at work.

"We had a bit of discussion on that and we agreed that collectively, we need to fundamentally displace attitudes and behaviour that propagate sexism. It may not be a conscious thing but maybe there's an unconscious bias in so doing."

Ms Low added that men, too, will also have to play a role in addressing this problem.

Ms Rahayu spoke about discrimination in workplaces and having access to flexible work and leave arrangements.

She said: "We have the legislation and guidelines in place, but the actual lived realities of the women going through some of these may not necessarily show the outcome that we desired, from the changes made over time."

Therefore, there is a need to review this area, Ms Rahayu said.

In schools, it will be worth examining how sexuality is taught, as well as having conversations to change mindsets, she added.

The participants were divided into three small groups to further discuss these topics.

Some areas that came up in the discussion included exploring opportunities for women to be part of a big network - a "national service" equivalent that all women could go through together.

Participants from universities, including the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and other organisations, talked about ways to help students better navigate conversations on consent, respect and gender roles.

 
 
 

Ms Gia Lim, a representative of the NTU Students' Union, said one issue that came up was that sex education should not just be a gendered issue and "there should not be a discrepancy between the content that boys and girls learn in school, from the primary to junior college level".

She added that polytechnics and universities should have greater involvement in sex education.

Another participant, Ms Attiya Ashraf Ali, vice-president of Mendaki Club, said on the community front, her group discussed the need for a safe space for women to voice their troubles and get help.

Mendaki Club, which organises activities and engages young members, is an affiliate of the Malay/ Muslim self-help group Mendaki.

She said: "We don't necessarily have people who are trained to deal with sexual violence cases, domestic abuse, for example, (though) this is something that has made progress recently.

"Hopefully, there are more avenues through which these women are able to get the help that they need... As a community, we can also be more active in creating that safe space."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2020, with the headline 'Challenges facing women highlighted by pandemic'. Print Edition | Subscribe