GE2020 demonstrates how far Singapore achieved in gender equality, but violence against women remains a major issue, says AWARE President

This year’s General Election (GE) has demonstrated how far Singapore has achieved gender equality in politics but violence against women remains a major issue, said Margaret Thomas, president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE).

Ms Thomas was among the panellists in the Ethos Books’ gathering of civil society that has brought together activists from different areas. The gathering, which titled The Ground Speaks: Civil Society After GE2020, was live-streamed on Facebook on 26 July.

“GE2020 demonstrated both how much has been achieved in the quest for gender equality and how much work is still needed,” she remarked.

Noting that there were 27 female politicians have been elected in Parliament, the former journalist said that it shows women now hold a significant part of the political process.

“So when Parliament reconvenes next month, we will be just shy of the UN’s [United Nations] 30 per cent target for women in leadership positions. We would, of course, like to see an equal number of women in Parliament, but 30 per cent is a whole lot better than the zero per cent that we had from 1978 to 1984,” she added.

It is notable that gender equality was also being discussed in some of the political parties’ election campaign, which can be observed from the People’s Action Party (PAP) in its Straight Talk show and the Hammer Show by the Workers’ Party (WP).

“I think this is partly because there are now more women in politics, so there is naturally greater interest in the understanding of these matters,” she added.

Ms Thomas also saw several proposals related to gender equality in WP’s manifesto, such as closing the gender wage gap. Though the proposals were “nowhere near as comprehensive” as those in AWARE’s gender equality manifesto, she believes “it’s a good start”.

“Also, the fact that one candidate who is now an elected MP, Raeesah Khan from the Workers’ Party has proudly described herself as a feminist and intersectional feminist. Our women leaders have tended to fight shy of this term. It’s okay, ‘feminist’ is not a dirty word,” she said.

Ms Thomas also recalled the case of a National University of Singapore student who physically assaulted his former girlfriend, which had led PAP’s female politicians to express concerns over the lenient sentence that the student received and called for Minister of Home Affairs (MHA) to look into it.

“I think it’s the first time that the women’s wing has taken a stand on the outcome of the court case. By doing so, they were echoing the unhappiness of many about what appears to be a tendency for better-educated offenders to be treated,” she said.

However, Ms Thomas said that the PAP had used an “ill-advised reference to wife-beating”  just to make a point during the General Election.

PAP in a press statement following the political debate between the parties, used an analogy involving spousal abuse to explain how Chee Soon Juan – the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) chief – is not telling the truth.

The statement went, “Imagine this: Dr Chee claims you said you want to beat up your spouse. You deny it, and show proof that you neither said this nor have beaten your spouse. Instead of apologising, Dr Chee says, ‘Victory! I extracted a promise from you that you will never beat your spouse’.”

“Many people, especially survivors of domestic violence, were very upset about this. The fact that the ruling party could so casually and callously use a domestic violence analogy to try to score a political point shows just how much more work is needed,” she noted.

Ms Thomas stressed that violence against women remains a major issue as many women are suffering in silence.

“We need to further improve our systems for handling cases of sexual assault and we need to get into the school curricular comprehensive and objective gender and sexuality education.

“Another great need is better support for the caregivers who are usually women, better support is also needed for women who want to return to the workforce after taking time off to have children or to look after elderly relatives,” she stated.

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