Delegates attend a meeting of the Geneva-based Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Photo: UN, Jean-Marc Ferré

Local​ ​NGOs​ ​come​ ​together​ ​to​ ​submit​ ​joint​ ​report​ ​to​ ​the​ ​UN about​ ​gender​ ​inequalities​ ​in​ ​Singapore

In an unprecedented move, 13 local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have joined forces to submit a report to a United Nations committee about the continuing gender inequalities in Singapore.

This follows news reports last week that some women’s organisations were not supporting the coalition report to the UN CEDAW (Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) Committee. CEDAW, adopted by the UN in 1979, defines discrimination against women and sets an agenda for nations to end these inequitable laws, policies and practices.

The coalition of 13 NGOs submitted its report, titled ‘Many Voices, One Movement’, to the UN CEDAW Committee yesterday. This Committee, comprising international experts, monitors the progress of signatory countries to the targets of the treaty. Singapore has been party to the Convention since October 1995.

Like all signatories, it is required to submit every four years a report to the CEDAW Committee about what has been done to comply with and implement the provisions of CEDAW. The Committee encourages NGOs to additionally submit their own reports about the situation in their countries. These NGO reports help the Committee to frame its questions when it meets the government delegations at the formal reporting sessions. While individual Singapore NGOs have participated in previous CEDAW reporting cycles, this is the first time they have joined forces to prepare a joint report. Some of the NGOs will be sending representatives to Geneva next month.

“After over 20 years of Singapore being party to CEDAW, it is heartening that NGOs have pulled together a historic, unprecedented Coalition Report,” said Malathi Das, Chair of the Coalition and President of Zonta Club of Singapore. “Although some consultation participants could not make the final list of endorsements, it has been a learning journey for all. We are hopeful more will join in the next cycle,” Ms Das added.

Veteran women’s rights advocate Dr Anamah Tan, the only Singaporean to have been a member of the UN CEDAW Committee, said: “Trail blazing and moving out of one’s comfort zone is not always smooth sailing. The report is the culmination of two years of negotiating, learning and understanding the differing views even amongst us who support the report. “We all want to see an end to all forms of discrimination against women because of our gender. That is our aim and that is the ultimate aim of CEDAW. We have made good progress.”

Dr Tan, a founding member of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations in 1980 and formerly its president, added: “I had the privilege and honour of serving on the UN CEDAW committee from 2004 to 2008, during which I read hundreds of NGO reports of many countries. The UN Committee is aware of the constraints of each such report and appreciates the effort put in by the reporting NGOs. The Singapore coalition report will definitely be read with interest.”

Singapore submitted its Fifth Periodic Report to the Committee in October 2015. A government delegation will meet the CEDAW Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, on 25 October to discuss the report. At these meetings, attended by NGOs, CEDAW Committee members question reporting states about progress in implementing CEDAW. Some months later, the Committee issues concluding observations and recommendations.

Following the session in Geneva, the NGO coalition looks forward to engaging the government on the issues listed in the NGO report, as well as the recommendations made by the UN CEDAW Committee.

Commenting on what the Coalition is hoping to see, Malathi Das said: “The Coalition seeks a decisive blueprint for achieving gender equality in all areas – family, employment and public life – and action on urgent issues like violence against women and migrants’ rights.”

Braema Mathi, immediate past president of Maruah, a human rights advocacy group, said: “MARUAH is very happy that diverse CSOs have come together to frame and support this Report. This is the way forward in the future. The challenge is to advocate CEDAW effectively.”

Halijah Mohamad, Vice-President of the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers (SAWL), added: “SAWL has never been involved in the preparation of previous CEDAW Shadow Reports and we were very pleased to have the opportunity to be involved in this maiden coalition exercise. We found our participation and efforts in this process a remarkably worthwhile and meaningful journey.”

Key recommendations of the report are summarised here:

● Reservations: Completely withdraw all reservations to Articles 2, 11 and 16 of the Convention.
● Article 1: Incorporate in the Constitution and legislation a definition of discrimination against women, and prohibit all forms of such discrimination on all grounds.
● Article 5: Eliminate the “head of household” concept from policy- and decision-making, and implement explicit gender equality education in schools. Expand the professional care economy and compensate caregivers to forestall financial insecurity. Repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code and review broadcasting policies to prevent stigmatisation of LGBT people.
● Article 6: Review PHTA in light of experience, accession to the UN TIP Protocol and the need for a victim-centered approach.
● Article 7: Adopt numerical targets for the appointment of women to public positions, including Cabinet, with specific, timed action plans to fulfil these targets.
● Article 10: Move away from abstinence-based sexuality education in schools to neutral, informative education including a focus on gender equality.
● Article 11: Enact a comprehensive employment anti-discrimination law; in particular, release data on, and take action against, pregnancy discrimination and discrimination against Muslim women who wear a headscarf.

Provide holistic support to women combining work and caregiving, including increased parental and childcare leave regardless of nationality. Increase financial support for older women with inadequate retirement savings.

Remove gender wage differentials presently justified by reference to men’s military NS; compensate NS directly through pay and benefits, and expand it to include military and non-military roles assigned by preference, aptitude and need rather than gender.

Amend the Code of Corporate Governance to increase the proportion of women on corporate Boards. Make the policy for licensed sex workers more transparent and bring the terms of their contracts in line with international labour standards.
● Article 12: Extend PGP to all individuals reaching 65. Remove SRS as a precondition to access medical and other benefits. Provide more holistic support for HIV-positive individuals, including subsidies for medication, anti-discrimination policies and an end to the law prohibiting them from entering and working in Singapore. Conduct a systematic and gender-sensitive review of mental health provision.
● Article 16 (Muslim law): Allow Muslims to choose to distribute estates in accordance with Muslim or civil law; allow ​non-Muslim next-of-kin to inherit from the estate of a deceased Muslim. Ban polygamy or introduce measures to end it in practice (e.g. make consent of the first wife mandatory before a second marriage can be contracted). Remove the requirement of consent of a wali for women to marry; make ROMM the automatic wali (unless women opt out) pending this. Allow suits by Muslim parties and involving children to be heard in FJC instead of automatically staying them for transfers to SYC.
● Article 16 (others): Remove all legal/policy distinctions between married and unmarried parents and children based on “legitimacy”; allow an unmarried parent and her child to form a “family nucleus” to access public housing. Set the minimum marriage age at 18; remove all exceptions for younger girls. Reduce the time bar for divorce to one year and remove it in cases of violence. Set up a Child Support Agency to collect maintenance. Abolish “head of household” concept in all policy- or decision-making.
● VAW: Reform laws to make protection available for all people from all VAW and sexual violence; completely remove marital immunity for all sexual violence offences and ensure access by non-marital intimate partners to protection orders against violence. Collect and release systematic data on the effectiveness of anti-harassment legislation in ending sexual harassment; implement employer responsibility for workplace sexual harassment if necessary. Sensitise public agencies (especially in criminal justice) to VAW and the needs of marginalised groups (LGBT people, sex workers).
● FDWs: Include these workers in the Employment Act, and take stronger measures to ensure regular rest days. Require employers to maintain, and give FDWs access to, proper salary records. ​Allow FDWs to seek employment transfers freely without the permission of their employers.
● Foreign wives: Automatically grant the LTVP+, with the right to work and healthcare subsidies, to all foreign spouses of citizens, with a defined path to permanent residence based on transparent criteria. Improve access to public housing for transnational couples.