Alvin Wong is the programme coordinator for WE CAN! Singapore, a campaign that seeks to end violence against women. As part of White Ribbon Week, TOC got in touch with him to talk about gender-based violence and how men and boys can do their part.
How did the White Ribbon Campaign come about?
The White Ribbon Campaign began in Canada in 1991 calling on men and boys to pledge never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls by wearing a white ribbon for a week. It was started out of the recognition that while men may be responsible for the vast majority of violence against women, men can also be a positive force for violence prevention. Today, it is the world's largest movement of men and boys engaged in ending gender-based violence, working towards gender equality and promoting a masculinity that is based in compassion and humanity.
Has Singapore ever had a White Ribbon campaign before this year? Why did We Can! decide to launch the White Ribbon campaign this year?
It has been more than 5 years since AWARE ran the White Ribbon Campaign in Singapore. We Can! decided to launch the White Ribbon Campaign this year because it is time we start seeing violence against women as a men's issue! We felt a growing concern among men in Singapore about violence against women and a willingness to speak up against it. We wanted to create more momentum and support for men to come together and take action, and provide a platform for them to be seen and heard as advocates of healthy relationships, gender equality and a manhood that is built not on aggression and "toughness", but care, compassion and respect. White Ribbon also serves as a starting point for future anti-violence, pro-equality programmes targeted at men and boys by We Can!.
How prevalent is the problem of violence against women in Singapore?
Around 3,000 Personal Protection Orders are sought against family violence each year, with 3 in 4 applications made by women. Last year, over 200 women asked AWARE's Sexual Assault Care Centre for help. The International Violence Against Women Survey (2012) found that 1 in 10 women in Singapore experience physical violence by a male in their lifetime. According to a 2008 AWARE survey, approximately 80% of people who experience workplace sexual harassment are women. Singapore law also provides marital immunity for rape, which acts as a barrier to identifying the prevalence of sexual violence within marriage.
What are some of the major misconceptions or misrepresentations of violence against women in Singapore?
In Singapore, violence against women is often perceived as only being physical, domestic abuse. In fact, violence against women covers a wide range of negative and harmful behaviours including sexual assault, emotional and verbal abuse, financial and social control, stalking and harassment. In addition, because of Singapore's reputation for safety, violence against women is often not regarded as a major issue. However, this ignores the fact that the majority of violence against women in Singapore takes place behind closed doors, unseen to the public eye. We are also often confronted by assertions that it is one-sided to focus on violence against women - "what about women's violence against men?". Women are disproportionately victimised by male violence, and we must acknowledge gender inequality and power imbalances as a significant part of the issue. Another misconception is that because law and order is emphasised so much in Singapore, it is easy for victims to get support, protection and justice. However, many barriers remain in victims' pursuit of safety - both structural and cultural barriers. The misconception that women often make false allegations of violence also needs to be debunked. Many myths about sexual violence - "rape myths" - continue to influence the way people view victims. A poor understanding of sexual consent, coupled with a tendency to blame the victim result in people seeing sexual harassment and even rape as something victims "ask for".
Why is it important for us to get the participation of men and boys?
The participation of men and boys in efforts to end violence against women is important because it changes the conversation where men are talked about as part of the problem, and says, "hey, you can be part of the solution!" We cannot end male violence against women unless men and boys are invited to examine what it means to "be a man" or "man up", and question mainstream masculine ideals of power, dominance, aggression and violence. Men and boys must ask the question - why are the terms "girl", "pussy", "sissy" used as insults against some boys? Why are some boys bullied, abused or harassed for not being "man enough"? Because these issues are interrelated. Moreoever, men and boys are affected by violence against women and girls in their lives - so they can be secondary victims too. And finally, men and boys need positive male role models to look up to. When men start speaking up and saying violence against women and girls is not cool, other men listen.
What was the process like of getting prominent men in Singaporean society to step forward and speak up about this issue? Was it difficult, or did you find a lot of support?
I am personally heartened by the amount of enthusiasm we received in response to our invitations to prominent men in Singapore to step forward and speak up. For instance, Mr. Adrian Pang, Artistic Director of Pangdemonium and Minister for Law and Home Affairs Mr. K. Shanmugam have been extremely supportive of the campaign. In fact, every man we've approached regarding this campaign has said a resounding yes to being an ambassador - that is really very encouraging. This has boosted our hope that more men in Singapore will take ownership and responsibility for violence prevention and intervention and we look forward to building the community of men and boys who are willing to take steps towards a violence-free society.
What do you suggest that men and boys who are interested in but new to the issue of violence against women do as a first step? If they want to do more, where do they begin?
I would suggest attending We Can!'s Change Maker workshop which runs every month (check our events page for upcoming dates) and staying in touch with the campaign by liking our Facebook page. We have a diverse range of events, workshops, talks and other programmes all year round and multiple ways of getting involved, from being an attendee to a volunteer to creating their own Change Maker Project!