January 26th, 2016

Human Rights Day seminar 2015: Progress and Perspectives for Women’s rights in Singapore and ASEAN

human-rightsA guest blog post by Camille Neale

On 10 December 2015, in celebration of the annual international human rights day, the Delegation of the European Union to Singapore hosted a seminar on “Progress and Perspectives for Women’s rights in Singapore and ASEAN”. The seminar explored the progress of women’s rights since Singapore’s accession to CEDAW in 1995, with a particular view to the future – what still needs to be done, what are the current challenges and what are the challenges that may emerge down the line. Particular issues that came to the fore included Singapore’s marital immunity for rape, the danger of increasing extremism for women, and the lack of government data in Singapore. Speakers included Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, the former under-secretary general of the UN and Dr. Vivienne Wee and Jolene Tan from AWARE.

In the keynote speech, Dr. Heyzer cited a lack of commitment as the biggest barrier to advancing a women’s rights agenda today. She asserted that the goal now is to create a world fit for women, one that values their experiences and their voices. To achieve sustainable development we must address women’s rights.

The first panel looked at Singapore’s progress since ratifying CEDAW. The speakers were Ms. Malathi Das, President of Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO), Ms. Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager of AWARE, and Dr. Anamah Tan, Lawyer at Ann Tan & Associates. Ms. Das started off by tracing the positive gains in women’s rights in Singapore, namely the increasing movement towards the removal of the reservations – a good sign for advocacy organisations. SCWO’s “wishlist” of issues to be addressed for women’s rights include the gender wage gap, women in leadership and a need for more participation by women’s groups in dialogue with women. Ms. Tan’s presentation underlined particular issues in Singapore, and the areas yet to see progress. A major problem is the harmful way that women’s roles are construed in public policy. Patriarchal traditionalist views of women’s reproduction continues to dominate in Singapore; domestic care labour continues to be seen as women’s work, and the capitalist system relies on women’s designation as carers. Dr. Tan spoke to the difference between progress and sustainable progress – if progress is not sustainable then there will be a regress.

The second panel dealt with emerging challenges to women’s rights in the ASEAN region. Speaking on the panel were Ms. Laura Hwang, Singapore’s government representative for women’s rights on the ASEAN commission for the promotion of women and children’s rights, Ms. Braema Mathi, President of MARUAH, and Ms. Halijah Mohamad, Attorney in practice and managing director of Halijah Mohamad & Co. Issues raised on this panel included the threat of climate change, which impacts will be borne disproportionately by women, increasing radicalisation, and violence against women using technology. Ms. Halijah emphasised in particular the issue of certain interpretations of religious law as a major challenge to women’s rights.

The last panel dealt with perspectives of women’s rights from Europe and Asia. On the panel was Dr. Vivienne Wee, a founding member of AWARE and the current director of research and advocacy, H.E. Berit Basse, Ambassador of Denmark to Singapore, and Ms. Thelma Kay, the former senior advisor to the Ministry of Community development, Youth and Sports. H.E. Basse spoke about some of the measures taken in Denmark to improve women’s lives, though she noted that Denmark too continues to face the problem of a highly segregated gender market. Dr. Wee talked about the emergence of the ‘Asian Values’ concept and its impact on the women’s rights movement. Ms. Kay suggested that we need to replace patriarchal ideology with socio-cultural norms grounded in social justice in order to be a more egalitarian society. All speakers brought up the issue of unconscious biases as a major issue to tackle.

The seminar concluded with remarks from H.E. Chan Heng Chee who responded to questions raised during the seminar, in particular on the issue of unconscious bias.

As Dr. Heyzer stressed in her opening address, there has been progress, but that progress is still not enough. The frameworks to promote women’s rights are there, but there is not enough action. There was also agreement on the need for male champions to push a women’s rights agenda. Although progress in women’s rights has largely been achieved by women, it is still men for the most part who hold positions of power and influence. Men need to accept responsibility in promoting change as well.

About the author: Camille Neale is currently an intern at AWARE.

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