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Poverty has a woman’s face and breaking the cycle is society’s collective responsibility

Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group, AWARE, recently hosted a panel discussion on their latest report entitled ‘Why Are You Not Working?’ which zeros in on the challenges that low-income mothers face with gaining and maintain employment and child care.

The survey found that these women tend to bear the brunt of financial instability as they are the ones who end up shouldering the family’s caregiving needs and face penalties when they try to access, engage, and stay in paid work. For these women, access to proper child care and the possibility of stable employment are inexplicably linked. The report looks into the structural and systemic barriers that these mothers face when trying to access both formal childcare and stable work.

The panel discussion, ‘Poverty Has a Woman’s Face’ featured Dr Teo You Yen, the author of bestselling book ‘This is What Inequality Looks Like’; Corinna Lim, executive director of AWARE; Carrie Tan, executive director of Daughters of Tomorrow; and Siti Aishah, a respondent of AWARE’s research and a mother of three working as an assistant admin officer.

In one of the presentation sessions, Carrie Tan spoke on the study conducted by AWARE which sampled respondents who were beneficiaries of Daughters of Tomorrow, a non-profit organisation that provides employment bridging support to low-income women looking for work.

Carrie shared a story about the first few times she tried to match a woman to an employer. In one case, she received a call from the interviewer who told her that the candidate was 30 minutes late. Of course, it baffled her that the woman wasn’t be punctual when so many people are trying so hard to help her. But after a little digging, Carrie found out that the woman simply got lost because she did not have GPS on her phone and so didn’t know how to get to the interview.

This and other stories like it illuminated to Carrie the unique challenges that these women face, little stumbling blocks that many of us don’t even think twice about because we’re fortunate enough to have the right tools and opportunities at our fingertips.

It's conversations like these that led Daughters of Tomorrow to start designing their programmes to include critical things like providing child minding support during classes and financial support for EZlink cards and prepaid phones so that they can remain accessible.

However, getting a job is just one hurdle. The next, bigger hurdle is keeping it. Many of these women have children to care for and barely any family support. So when one child gets sick, inevitably their other children get sick as well. The women say that they’re just so tired of having to constantly apply for urgent leave and receiving accusatory looks from their employers that they just quit.

Executive Director of AWARE, Corinna Lim says, “There is growing attention paid to how inequality affects families in Singapore. When we talk about inequality, we need to especially look at how mothers, as caregivers, are impacted. Our findings show how mothers from low-income households are constrained by inadequate formal childcare, and prevailing working conditions that do not offer decent jobs. This has wide-reaching consequences on their lives and the next generation’s financial security”.

During the panel discussion, Dr Teo You Yenn noted three things that should be front and centre following AWARE’s report:

  1. The importance of paying attention to gender and class when talking of work life balance,
  2. Importance of paying attention to the links between individual choices and social context and
  3. What is more broadly at stake for the society when talking of work and care.

Dr Teo noted that work life balance is talked about quite a lot, about roles employers and fathers play in creating better conditions for work life balance. Though that’s important, it’s also crucial that focus is broadened to include class and class inequalities into that equation because there’s no denying the fact that options differ drastically for people of different socio-economic backgrounds. The issue for these mothers isn’t just a low-income problem but also an issue of inequality. Dr Teo emphasises that needs remain quite constant across class lines and the problem in Singapore is that these needs are not being met equally.

This is in reference to the fact that there are many childcare centres in Singapore but low-income mothers are limited to subsidised childcare which do not have sufficient vacancies in certain areas. This leads to long waiting lists or just no vacancies at all, leaving these mothers with no recourse other than staying home to care for their family. Sure, there are many private childcare centres but obviously, they’re not within the financial capabilities of low income families. Corinna Lim pointed out that the government has said that they will have an additional 40,000 sports in subsidised childcare centre – that shows just how significant the current shortage is.

"Finding childcare for my youngest child was difficult, and took some time. I had no choice but to leave her at home to go to work. The childcare centres around my area did not have vacancies, or I had to wait a long time," said Rosilah, a respondent of the study.

In fact, some respondents event reported abuse and low quality of care but didn’t think they had the right to lodge complaints or choose they centre because they were already being subsidised.

Another major issue the fact that many low-income mothers tend to be employed as casual workers, meaning that they are not entitled to the full string of benefits and protection that a full-time worker gets including CPF, insurance coverage and a guaranteed stable monthly income. In fact, many women aren’t even fully aware of their rights as employees which makes it easier for them to be taken for granted by employers.

The report carefully outlines suggested changes in policy and programmes that would be more inclusive to the needs of working mothers, bringing down barriers that are keeping them from the receiving the help they need in the existing system.

Rightly so, Corinna elaborated that any intervention should be focused on a broader work care regime. It’s not just about tweaks and interventions on the level of individual persons but rethinking and recalibrating the entire work care regime to be more useful to everyone.

The panel emphasised that helping low-income families, especially mothers, is not just a niche problem. Instead, it’s a problem from everyone because when these mothers are raising future employees and the future society – so really, it’s in the interest of everyone to think more holistically about how this can be addressed.

Corinna said, “When worth to society is narrowly defined against a person’s capacity for employment, most people will find themselves unworthy and one point or another. So we must not play employment of women as the only end goal. Actually, it should be for people of all gender and class to be able to make the choices that best suit their circumstances so that they can best contribute to society.”

The panel agreed that when the concept of work can be detached from just wage work thus encompassing care work under that umbrella, we as a society will come closer to recognising and affirming the inherent dignity and worth of persons.

Read AWARE's full report here.