SINGAPORE - Through collective efforts over the years, the position of women in Singapore society has improved significantly in areas such as education, representation in Parliament and contributions to the economy, said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam.
Other efforts, he said, helped plug gaps in areas that affected women - such as the Penal Code amendments last year that specifically addressed voyeurism, among other things, and the formation of an inter-agency task force earlier this year to combat family violence and protect victims.
However, there are still areas where the advancement of women's interests is a "work in progress", and part of the issue remains structural, he added.
Mr Shanmugam, in a speech on Sunday (Sept 20), announced a comprehensive review of issues affecting gender inequality that will culminate in a White Paper to be delivered in Parliament in the first half of next year.
He added that a virtual dialogue session titled "Conversations On Women's Development", which took place after his speech, would start work on gathering feedback on issues that affect women at home, in schools, workplaces and the community.
The review, Mr Shanmugam said, will be led by three female political office-holders: Minister of State for Education as well as Social and Family Development Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth, and Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling, and Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam.
It is the continuation of a journey that started many years ago, with a key point being the passing of the Women's Charter in 1961 - before Singapore's independence.
The charter was a landmark legislation during its time, he said, and it provided for monogamous marriage and the rights and duties of married people at a time when polygamous marriage was commonplace.
As the key piece of legislation governing women's rights, the charter has been amended over the years, such as in 2016 and last year, to better support vulnerable women or girls in family violence and crisis situations, as well as strengthen law enforcement against online vice, he added.
Other than the Women's Charter, new laws have also been added to protect women's interests. "This has been one of my key priorities as Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law," Mr Shanmugam said.
These include amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act in 2018 to reduce trauma inflicted on victims during the criminal justice process, and changes to the Penal Code last year, which repealed marital immunity for rape, among other things.
This year, changes to the Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Act made it possible for victims to obtain protection orders against harassment, stalking, and online bullying, he added.
Said Mr Shanmugam: "We also made the process easier for women to lodge reports and obtain justice." One example, he added, was the establishment of the OneSafe Centre by the police for victims of sexual assault to undergo forensic and medical examination in one place with greater privacy.
The Family Violence Taskforce, set up earlier this year and co-chaired by Ms Sun and Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Faishal Ibrahim, will complete its study and provide recommendations next year, he added.
Mr Shanmugam said women have done well in many sectors, such as medicine, law, accountancy, finance, and some aspects of the knowledge economy. "But there are areas where it is still work in progress," he added.
Referring to the Council for Board Diversity formed in 2014 to address the underrepresentation of women in board positions, he said women on boards of top 100 companies on the Singapore Exchange was 7.5 per cent in 2013. That increased to 16.2 per cent last year.
Part of the problem, he added, was structural.
Mr Shanmugam said working women are often forced to make a choice between work and family - a difficult decision that men seldom have to confront.
"We want women to be presented with real choices, unencumbered by unequal expectations on the roles of men and women in society," he said.
Still, Singapore has done "fairly well", he said. He noted that there were 28 female MPs in Parliament out of a total of 95 seats - a proportion of about 29 per cent. "This is higher than the Inter-Parliamentary Union's world average of 24.5 per cent."
Women's literacy rate was 96 per cent last year, up from 86 per cent in 1995. And Singapore has been ranked first for proportion of women employed with advanced degrees in the Global Innovation Index 2020, he said.
Mr Shanmugam said: "A society which does not recognise the equal position of women is a society which can never live up to its potential - even more so in Singapore, where people are our only assets.
"The outcome of this process is not just a White Paper with recommendations, but it has got to be a clear message to every young girl today and in the future, that Singapore will always be a place where they can achieve their fullest potential."