November 11th, 2009

The State of Women: Reality Bites

By Dana Lam, AWARE President

Illustration by alterelfo

Illustration by alterelfo

I’m writing this on a Saturday. Unless things have changed, several hundred Singapore men are likely to have been on the first boat to Batam this morning. Awaiting their arrival are girls who, in a better world, would be on a college campus somewhere instead of in the stale confines of a karaoke lounge with the zippers of their jeans permanently down.

Here in Singapore another group of girls is waiting: girls prized for their innocence, their young faces getting tense as the expiry date of their two-week social visit pass approaches and there are no takers still. They are here on a gamble, hoping for the chance of a better life as wives of Singaporean men. It is difficult to know what to wish for them: that they have to return to their home country with no husband in tow, or to be married off to men whose offer of a ‘better’ life could mean unalleviated servitude, violence and abandonment. (See Below.)

Yet other women have scraped together money to pay the handlers’ fee and passage here on the promise of work placements in our many swanky shops and restaurants or in the entertainment circuit only to find themselves entrapped in squalor and vice

The story is old as the hills. Whether innocent bride or hard-nosed vamp, the road taken is seen the world over, paved with countless trampled bodies and souls. What should concern us all is what it reveals of our patriarchal roots and their strangulating hold on our collective imagination and regard of women. After a century of the vote, after topping the men in education, after some of us have run huge businesses and led nations, women are still reducible to the position of chattel. Women allow it. Men do it.

A recent article in The New York Times, The Mismeasure of Woman, resonates. The measure of women’s advancement in the number of us making it to high political or management appointments is misleading because there has not been significant change in the fundamentally patriarchal attitude towards women. This attitude manifests in a spectrum of violence involving fathers, mothers, daughters, sons.

In just the last few weeks, we have read in the local media about two young victims of rape. In both cases, the perpetrator was the father. In one, the girl is given to believe that rape is a form of punishment for her misdeeds. In yet another case, 16 year-old Nur Azilah Ithnin was sentenced to four years imprisonment for doing the dirty work for loan sharks. Nur’s case history includes physical abuse by her father.

Mothers and grandmothers have been implicated in cases such as these. All too often mothers have stood by silently if not actually been involved in the violence on their daughters. The daughters may be retaliating. Social workers are reporting increases in elder abuse where the perpetrator is a woman. And, sadly, too many women continue to abuse the other woman in the house, the foreign domestic worker.

This month, in countries around the world, people are taking part in the White Ribbon Campaign. The campaign calls for men to pledge never to commit, condone or keep silent about violence against women. It is a pledge we should all make.

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