Not just sugar and spice and everything nice
Do girls in Singapore grow up as the equals of boys? Current discrepancies in cultural attitudes suggest that they do not.
By Vivienne Wee and Evon Too
October 11 inaugurates the International Day of the Girl Child. Declared by a United Nations General Assembly resolution on 19 December 2011, the Day commemorates girls’ rights and seeks to create awareness about the challenges girls face all over the world.
The theme this year is ‘ending child marriage’. According to the International Centre for Research on Women, 51 million girls between the ages of 15 and19 are married. Within the next decade, 100 million girls will be married before 18.
UNICEF notes: “Marrying girls under 18 years old is rooted in gender discrimination, encouraging premature and continuous child bearing and giving preference to boys’ education.”
While the issue of child marriage may seem irrelevant to Singapore, we should be aware that our laws currently do allow non-Muslims below 18 to marry if they obtain parental consent and a Special Marriage License, while Muslims below 18 can marry with a special licence from a Kadi who solemnizes Muslim marriages.
While such marriages are relatively rare in Singapore, they nevertheless can and do occur, with at least about 100 such marriages every year. Singapore is thus one of the countries described by the United Nations as allowing “early marriage with parental consent”.
For society at large, a more significant question is: do girls in Singapore grow up as the equals of boys? There is some evidence that daughters are subject to more abuse than sons are.
A 2005 study by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), Protecting Children in Singapore, shows that over five years, more girls (57 per cent) were abused than boys were (43 per cent). Is this the tip of an iceberg that requires more attention?
But the education of girls has greatly improved in the past four decades, with the female literacy rate increased from 54.3 per cent in 1970 to 94.1 per cent in 2011. Currently, among females aged 15 to 24, 85.8 per cent have at least secondary education, more than the 83.7 per cent of males in that age group, although not the girls who acquire secondary education continue with further studies.
However, despite the impressive educational achievements, the female employment lags far behind. The employment rate of females in 2011 was 46.3 per cent, compared to the male rate of 76.4 per cent. This is because the female employment rate peaks at the age of 25, but declines thereafter, because many withdraw from the workforce after childbirth to look after children.
The employment rate of tertiary-educated females is higher than those without tertiary qualifications. But this may be because those with higher paying jobs can hire domestic workers as care-giving proxies.
Perhaps the most important factor causing the gap between female education and female employment is the relegation of childcare as the mother’s sole responsibility.
Although gender discrimination here is less marked than in societies with child marriage, it nevertheless persists in the socialisation of boys as breadwinners-to-be and girls as mothers-to-be (albeit mothers with at least secondary education). To this end, little girls are brought up to be “sugar and spice and everything nice”, with their aspirations and opportunities distorted to fit this stereotype.
Gender discrimination runs counter to a society seeking to maximise its human resources. It wastes national investments and leads to imbalance between a male-dominated workplace and a female-dominated home (with the falling fertility rate as a symptom of such imbalance).
In an inclusive society, girls and boys should be growing up as persons equally able to develop their full human potential. That, ultimately, is the key message of the International Day of the Girl Child.
Dr Vivienne Wee is AWARE’s Research & Advocacy Director and an anthropologist. Evon Too is an AWARE volunteer. This piece was first published in Today on Oct 11, 2012. Read the published version here.