Women who face matrimonial issues or – to a more severe extent – are victims of domestic violence, come from all walks of life. People are often surprised when I mention this, but based on my experience as a counsellor at the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO), this is what I have observed. I often hear things like, “He can carry on with his life as if nothing has happened, while I’m worrying about what is going to my children”, and “Everyone, including my husband, thinks it’s my fault that the marriage broke down – as a dutiful wife, I should be pleasing him instead”.
These women are the residents of SCWO’s Star Shelter, a temporary refuge for women to recover and heal from domestic violence. They are also the clients of SCWO’s Maintenance Support Central, a service centre that provides support and assistance to clients who are facing matrimonial issues and difficulty in receiving maintenance.
The topic of equity within a family has been the backdrop of many counselling sessions. The truth is that families are not balanced. Unfortunately, deeply rooted differences in gender roles still exist in pockets of society today: Household duties, from taking care of the children, spouse and the elderly, to cleaning and cooking, often fall on women.
Deeply ingrained societal expectations and values on gender norms and roles entrench mindsets on how an individual should behave, which may give rise to feelings of guilt and/or insecurity in women.
I applaud the landmark White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development (2022) that was released by the Government. It lays out action plans to support women in vulnerable positions, as well as those going through divorce. There are many recent legislative advancements to protect women and their children. However, despite the many external systemic and structural efforts, some women are still struggling. As I listen to my clients, I hear their pain and feel their heartbeats. Beneath the tears and exasperation, there is a huge mountain of fear – of making the wrong choice, drawing negative attention, being judged, and being a bad mother, wife or daughter.
According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, it will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap. This alarming statistic could backslide further with the bleak economic forecast and mounting inflation. Locally, in terms of financial adequacy and career decisions, many women make the decision to take a break from work to honour family and care responsibilities. Central Provident Fund (CPF) data revealed that women have not been able to achieve the Basic Retirement Sum as easily as men – in 2018, 67 per cent of men achieved the basic retirement sum, compared to 56 per cent of women who did. Financial insecurity due to caregiving duties and parental leave, coupled with the wage gap, severely jeopardise women’s retirement savings.
To achieve an equitable society, both women and men have a part to play. For example, employers can do their part by implementing more family-friendly work arrangements. Men too should be empowered to share responsibilities in the care for children and the elderly in the family, and the values of respect and honouring one another should be upheld and inculcated in our young through positive role modelling, education and the media. We can fight gender stereotypes, as long as we are willing to recognise our unconscious bias.