Covid-19 pandemic-linked family violence highlights need for review to address gender inequality

There was an increase in reports about family violence during the recent circuit breaker period, which is of concern to the authorities and to society, said Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling. PHOTO: ST FILE

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

Minister of State for Education and Social and Family Development Sun Xueling said on Sunday (Sept 20) that there was an increase in reports about family violence during the recent circuit breaker period - something that "is of concern to the authorities and to the larger society".

A new inter-agency task force, of which Ms Sun is a co-chair, was set up earlier this year to address such problems.

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 was speaking on Sunday at a virtual dialogue titled "Conversations on Women Development", the first of a series of upcoming engagement sessions that aims to gather feedback on issues that affect women at home, in schools, workplaces and the community.

About 60 participants from youth groups and women 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 office-holders - 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 noted that a participant in the dialogue spoke about how "we need to continue to resist perpetuating traditional gender roles that are very harmful stereotypes".

"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," said Ms Low, noting that men will also have to play a role in this.

Ms Rahayu spoke on discrimination in workplaces and having accessibility to flexible work and leave arrangements.

"We have 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."

There is a need to review this area, she said.

In schools, it will be worth looking at changing 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 participants' discussion included exploring opportunities for women to be part of a big network - a "national service" equivalent that all women can go through together.

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

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

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

On the community front, Ms Attiya Ashraf Ali, vice-president of Mendaki Club, who participated in the dialogue session, said her group discussed the need for a safe space for women to voice their troubles and get help. The club, which organises activities and engages young members, is an affiliate of the Malay Muslim self-help group Mendaki.

She added: "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."

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