Singapore Says Gender Equality Central to Country’s Promising Socio-Economic Growth, as Delegation Reports on Implementation of Women’s Convention
Singapore Says Gender Equality Central to Country’s Promising Socio-Economic Growth, as Delegation Reports on Implementation of Women’s Convention
|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Committee on Elimination of
Discrimination against Women
993rd & 994th Meetings (AM & PM)
Singapore Says Gender Equality Central to Country’s Promising Socio-Economic
Growth, as Delegation Reports on Implementation of Women’s Convention
Anti-Discrimination Committee Calls on Country to Drop Remaining Reservations
To Convention, Ratify other Human Rights Treaties, Combat Stereotypes, Trafficking
Singapore’s delegation to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women asserted today that gender equality was central to the country’s burgeoning socio-economic growth and responded to the Committee’s concerns over trafficking in persons, reservations to the women’s Convention, reinforced stereotypes and other issues, as it presented its latest periodic report.
“With people as our only natural resource, it follows that investing in, developing and maximizing the full potential of every individual, male or female, is a priority,” said Halimah Binte Yacob, Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports and head of the delegation. She stressed that implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was an ongoing process that involved Government agencies, businesses, unions and employers, and civil society, representatives of which were present today.
Singapore had risen to tenth out of 138 countries on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, she said, noting that maternal health was among the best in the world, women’s literacy had risen to 93.8 per cent and over half of entering students in universities were female. Stereotypes were disappearing — though that was “a work in progress”, and women’s participation in the work force had increased from below 30 per cent in the 1970s to 56.5 per cent in 2010. Women were also heavily represented in civil service and the judiciary, including in leadership positions.
She described multiple initiatives recently introduced to overcome challenges for better work-life integration, to ensure that women’s skills remained up-to-date and to promote fathers’ responsibility for child care. Following the most recent elections, over 22 per cent of members of Parliament were women. She stressed that through various platforms, the Government actively encouraged the political participation of women from all walks of life, something that would also increase with better education and the growing acceptance of women in public office.
On issues involving sharia applicable to the Muslim minority, she said that relevant agencies, along with the Islamic Religious Council, had undertaken a major project to ensure that religious law remained dynamic and responsive to the interest of women. As a result, the minimum age for Muslim marriage had been raised to 18, religious edicts on fairer property division had been issued and the blanket reservation against articles 2 and 16 of the Convention had been withdrawn. She added, however, that it was necessary to maintain the reservation against specific elements of those articles because of the need of the Muslim minority to practice their family and personal laws, though she pledged that the issue would be kept under review.
Outlining measures to combat sexual exploitation and abuse of domestic workers, she also described extensive efforts to stem trafficking in women, including an enhanced legal code, victim’s services and the creation of a multi-agency task force.
Following her presentation, experts welcomed progress in the socio-economic situation of women and the partial repeal of reservations, but they called on the country to drop remaining reservations to the Convention, to ratify other human rights conventions, to take proactive measures to increase women’s participation in various spheres, to combat stereotyped roles and to bolster efforts to combat trafficking in persons, among other efforts.
Explaining the remaining reservations to articles 2 and 16, a delegate from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore said they were meant to accommodate such Muslim family factors as the guardian’s permission for marriage, and various issues in divorce and polygamy. He stressed that there were mechanisms of recourse in all those areas and that sharia required that men prove they were qualified for additional marriages, with a result that the practice had declined to only 0.08 per cent of unions. One expert suggested that the practice be allowed to stand, to satisfy religious requirements, but that it be agreed that no men were qualified for it.
Some experts stressed that, even though women were making progress in participation in many sectors, so-called temporary special measures of affirmative action were needed to reach equal participation in more areas. Others voiced concern over the reinforcement of gender stereotypes, through widespread plastic surgery for women and reiteration of the idea of men as heads of households.
In response to many questions on Singapore’s efforts to combat trafficking in persons and when it might accede to the so-called Palermo Protocol concerning human trafficking of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, Ms. Yacob agreed with the gravity of the situation and the need to continually step up vigilance and strengthen legal measures. While the country was not a party to that Protocol, the language of the instrument had been adopted in addressing that issue. She outlined initiatives in protection of victims and investigation of perpetrators, and said that a forthcoming national plan of action would augment those efforts with awareness-raising programmes.
In urging the ratification of additional treaties, experts stressed the importance of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and seven other such treaties, as well as the Optional Protocol of the women’s Convention, itself. They also discussed the need for comprehensive anti-discrimination language in national law and recalled that Committee had recommended the creation of a national human rights instrument in line with the Paris Principles.
The delegation replied that while Singapore lacked specific legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender, article XII of its Constitution guaranteed the equal protection of all people under the law and, therefore, prevented discrimination based on gender, marital status, age, disability or other such grounds. On the issue of other human rights treaties, Ms. Yacob said her Government considered them very seriously, but stressed that the principles involved were applied except for the provisions with which the country disagreed. “We don’t want ratification for the sake of ratification,” she added.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women will meet again at a time and place to be announced.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to consider the fourth periodic report of Singapore (document CEDAW/C/SGP/4).
Leading the delegation was Halimah Binte Yacob, the Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports. She was joined, also from the Ministry, by Ong Toon Hui, Deputy Secretary; Lim Hwee She, Coordinating Director of Corporate Management; Noorul Farha As’art, Assistant Director of Women’s Development; and Kwan Sui Fen Karen, Manager of Women’s Development.
The delegation also included, from Singapore’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, Vanu Gopala Menon, Permanent Representative; Kok Li Peng, Deputy Permanent Representative and Counsellor; and Chan Yu Ping, First Secretary.
Also joining were Ng Chun Pin, Director of Tripartite Programmes and International Labour at the Labour Relations and Workplaces Division of the Ministry of Manpower; Tan Sew Lan Janice, Deputy Director of Security of the Policy and Operations Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs; Liew Wan Choo Fereen, Deputy Director of Primary Care and Community Mental Health of the Ministry of Health; Davinia Filza Binte Abdulaziz, Deputy Senior State Counsel for the International Affairs Division of the Attorney-General’s Chambers; and Sofia Binte Md Sharif, Senior Manger of the International Relations Unit of the Ministry of Manpower’s Workplace Policy and Strategy Division.
The delegation also included, from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, Irwan Hadi bin Mohd Shuhaimy, Assistant Head of the Office of the Mufti and Secretary of the Fatwa Committee; and Raihanah Binte Halid, Executive in the Office of the Mufti.
Introduction of Report
Ms. BINTE YACOB said gender equality was central to the continued rapid socio-economic progress in Singapore. “With people as our only natural resource, it follows that investing in, developing and maximizing the full potential of every individual, male or female, is a priority.” Implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was an ongoing process that required ownership by all stakeholders. Besides Government agencies, businesses, unions and employers, her Ministry worked closely with civil society, representatives of which were present today. She was pleased to announce that, last year, the country had ratified the amendment to article 20, paragraph 1 of the Convention.
Singapore, she explained, was a parliamentary republic with a written Constitution, which guaranteed the principles of equality and non-discrimination. The obligations of the women’s Convention were also realized through acts of Parliament, subsidiary legislation, policies and programmes, all of which were reviewed regularly and provided avenues for individual women to pursue gender equality. What she called a “whole-of-Government” approach was taken to advance such equality. A group of senior Government officials of all key agencies coordinated efforts related to the Convention, and that process was supported by the Office for Women’s Development in her Ministry, recently upgraded from what was known as “the Women’s Desk”.
Aided by such governance and robust socio-economic development, women in Singapore had come a long way, she said. The country was ranked tenth out of 138 countries on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index. In the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index, the country had risen almost 30 places in one year, from 84 in 2009 to 56 in 2010. International organizations had also recognized the country’s excellent health-care system, with a maternal mortality rate among the lowest in the world, at 2.6 per 100,000 births in 2010 and zero in 2009. Women had a literacy rate of 93.8 per cent, and female students made up more than half the full-time intake at local universities and were now well represented in traditionally male-dominated subjects. Stereotypes were disappearing and women’s participation in the labour force had increased from below 30 per cent in the 1970s to 56.5 per cent in 2010.
Concerted efforts in helping people fulfil career aspirations, including grants to spur flexible working arrangements, had resulted in adoption by an increasing number of companies of work-life integration initiatives. Since the last report, means-tested subsidies for child care and kindergarten had been significantly enhanced. Significant enhancements had been made to maternity benefits, and tax relief supported working mothers and caregivers. A national “dads for life” movement had been launched to encourage shared care-giving responsibilities. Enhanced paid child-care leave had resulted in many more fathers taking off time for child care. Women made up 25.3 per cent of employers in 2010 and constituted 56 per cent of the civil service, as well as 59 per cent of the top-two categories of officers. Six of the 22 top civil service posts were occupied by women, and more than half of the judicial officers in the subordinate courts and just under 20 per cent of the Supreme Court were women.
She said efforts were ongoing to overcome challenges for better work-life integration, to ensure that women’s skills remained up-to-date and to support elderly women in a rapidly aging society. Measures were put in place to allow older people to work longer, to provide better annuity opportunities, to maintain their health and to obtain financial maintenance from their children.
Following the most recent elections, she said, over 22 per cent of members of Parliament were women. She stressed that through various platforms, the Government actively encouraged the political participation of women from all walks of life, something that would also increase with better education and the growing acceptance of women in public office.
Underlining Singapore’s commitment to human rights in a regional context, she reported significant developments on the practice of sharia in Singapore, through the work of relevant agencies with the Islamic Religious Council and other stakeholders who had undertaken a robust comparative legal study and law reform to ensure that the religious law remained dynamic and responsive to the interest of women. As a result, Singapore had withdrawn its reservation against articles 2 and 16 of the Convention. The minimum age of Muslim marriage had been raised from 16 to 18 years old, and religious edicts issued to secure the financial welfare of Muslim women. However, it was necessary to continue to maintain the reservation against specific elements of articles 2 and 16 of the Convention because of the need of the Muslim minority to practice their family and personal laws. The delicate balance of the multicultural, multireligious society must be actively maintained, she stressed, while she assured the Committee that the Government would continue to review its Convention reservations in the context of societal needs and obligations.
On measures taken to protect vulnerable women, she said laws had been enhanced to protect women and girls against exploitation for commercial sex. It had been made an offence to purchase sexual services from a minor under 18 either in Singapore or overseas, to organize child sex tours or to print, publish or distribute any information that promoted commercial sex exploitation of minors under 18. The Child and Young Persons’ Act had been amended this year to enhance child protection of both boys and girls, and serious sex abuse was now subject to tougher penalties. This year had also seen the formation of an inter-agency task force on trafficking in persons, as part of the strengthening of the strategy consisting of prevention, prosecution, protection and partnerships. There was a comprehensive set of legislative, administrative and educational measures to protect foreign domestic workers, which were reviewed on a regular basis. A new employment agency regulatory framework introduced this year aimed to minimize abuses. She acknowledged that the Government would need to work more closely with countries of origin to overcome such challenges as the debt burdens accrued by migrants prior to their arrival in Singapore. In conclusion, she reiterated Singapore’s commitment to the full and practical realization of its Convention obligations.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, expert member from Croatia, asked about Singapore’s plans for the potential future ratification of the Optional Protocol to the women’s Convention. She also wondered what role the country’s Parliament played in Singapore’s interactions with international treaty bodies. Had it received the concluding observations from the Committee’s previous review?
She wished to know more about Singapore’s dualist legal system. The Committee understood that it was not possible to directly invoke articles of the Convention in the country’s courts. Was that correct? Was it then possible for courts themselves to make references to relevant parts of the Convention? Noting that Singapore had not followed the recommendation to create a comprehensive prohibition of discrimination, which was contained in the Committee’s previous concluding observations, she asked if it would now consider doing so.
She was pleased that Singapore was “taking steps in the right direction”, and progress was evident, for example, through the partial withdrawal of some initial reservations to the Convention. However, some reservations remained. What obstacles stood in the way of their withdrawal?
PATRICIA SCHULZ, expert member from Switzerland, said that despite Singapore’s ratification of the Convention, the Committee was concerned that its accession to other important international treaties — especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — was lagging. Would the country ratify the seven other major international treaties? If so, what was the time frame for that process?
Further, there seemed to be a discrepancy between the assertion of Singapore’s Constitution that all people were equal and entitled to protection under the law, on the one hand, and a clause saying that only Singapore’s citizens were afforded legal protection. Could the delegation clarify the discrepancy? Like other experts, she was concerned about Singapore’s lack of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law. Its Constitution prohibited and criminalized male homosexuality, she noted. How did that affect lesbians? Finally, the media were fined for “presenting lesbianism as acceptable”, she said, asking how Singapore could reconcile such activities with the principles of the Convention.
VICTORIA POPESCU, Committee Vice-Chairperson and expert member from Romania, said that she hoped the country would ratify the Convention’s Optional Protocol, and asked for more information on steps taken towards that aim. Ensuring Singapore’s stated commitment to human rights through real implementation was critical. To that end, the Committee had recommended the creation of a national human rights instrument in line with the Paris Principles, as well as a national mechanism for monitoring the Convention’s implementation and for handling discrimination complaints filed by women.
The drafting of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, along with a specific law prohibiting discrimination based on gender, was critical, she agreed with other experts. The Committee, therefore, strongly recommended an amendment to Singapore’s Constitution, in order to introduce those elements, or alternatively, the enactment of specific anti-discrimination legislation.
Noting that various forms of discrimination, especially against disadvantaged women, were still prevalent, she echoed concern that the Convention had not yet seen a “full domestication” in Singapore. Could the delegation provide information on steps taken — and those still outstanding — to better enforce the Convention and to allow for its invocation in national courts?
YOKO HAYASHI, expert member from Japan, said that Singapore’s economic growth had opened a “wealth of opportunities” for women in Singapore. However, the country needed to ensure that all growth was in line with the principle of gender equality. In that light, what budget was allocated to women’s development, and what percentage of the overall budget did that constitute?
As much progress had been affected through the work of the inter-ministerial committee, she wondered about that committee’s engagement with the national Parliament. Was gender training of various professionals in place? Had any work been done to incorporate migrant women and foreign wives into the national legislative provisions?
The head of the delegation said that while Singapore lacked specific legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender, article XII of its Constitution clarified the important principle of equality. That article guaranteed the equal protection of all people under the law, and therefore prevented discrimination based on gender, marital status, age, disability or other such grounds. No cases along those lines had yet come before the Singapore courts, but cases falling under similar jurisdiction showed that it was possible.
That article was in line with local academic opinion, she continued. The Government worked through both legal and non-legal channels, under the purview of the inter-ministerial committee, to counter discrimination. Additionally individual forms of discrimination fell under the appropriate ministry, she said, or were referred to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices. Legislation also covered some of those specific areas.
With regard to the position of the Convention in domestic law, she said that the treaty’s provisions did not automatically become part of the law. But a woman facing discrimination could invoke the principle of equality under Singapore’s national law. Reporting on and dissemination of international recommendations was taken seriously, and their implementation was monitored; for example, the recommendations from the Committee’s last review had been disseminated all the way to the Office of the Prime Minister himself.
A delegate from the Attorney-General’s Chambers took the floor to address Singapore’s dual jurisdiction status. In practice, if an individual wished to cite a principle of the Convention in court, he or she would not invoke that principle directly, but would first refer to the relevant national law. Courts, however, had referred to the relevant international standards in several instances, which had established a precedent.
On the conflict between the Convention and the Constitution’s article XII, the point was not to limit the guarantee of equality only to citizens of Singapore; it was simply an additional clause added to refer to specific grounds of discrimination, she said. Singapore had given further consideration to the Convention’s Optional Protocol following the last review in 2007, and after careful consideration, it had decided not to accede to it. Singapore felt that it had sufficient mechanisms in place to address discrimination, and assured the Committee that the Convention’s implementation was under constant review.
Another member of the delegation said that Singapore did not condone any discrimination in the workplace. National legislation offered avenues for both complaint and redress. Complementing that legislative approach, the Tripartite Alliance aimed to change the mindsets and behaviours of employers. It had concluded guidelines on fair employment practices, which provided for equal hiring practices. It was also important to note that only 0.2 per cent of women had cited discrimination as their reason for not working, she said.
Another delegate added that the reservations to articles 2 and 16 had only been partially withdrawn as some parts of the domestic framework, or sharia made parts of those reservations necessary.
To elaborate further, a delegation member from the Islamic Council of Singapore said that sharia made an allowance for men to engage in polygamy in very exceptional circumstances. However, only 0.08 per cent per cent of marriages were polygamous and that represented a significant decline. All applications for such marriages were rigorously reviewed, he stressed. Additionally, the first wife had several avenues of recourse available, including appealing on the decision to allow a polygamous marriage, or filing for divorce.
Another sharia provision that prevented the full withdrawal of reservations was a rule that women who wished to get married must have a legal guardian, or a “wali”. However, it was ensured that the right of a woman to be heard was integrated into that wali requirement under Singapore’s national laws.
On divorce, several grounds existed for women to seek recourse, he said. Those included infidelity, failure of a husband to provide for physical and emotional needs and abuse or violence. After a divorce, a time period must elapse before a new marriage was permitted, he added. He then shared specific recent developments in the areas of inheritance law, namely that many of those laws were now in harmony with provisions of civil law, including in the area of property division, as well as with the Convention. Since the last review, Singapore had raised the minimum age of marriage from 16 to 18 for both genders. However, written law still allowed for the marriage of a girl between the ages of 16 and 18 under exceptional circumstances. Marriages in that age group had nonetheless dropped by 80 per cent in recent years.
The head of the delegation then addressed the issue of other human rights treaties. Singapore’s Government took ratification very seriously and had fully considered its potential obligations under those treaties. However, she stressed, “we don’t want ratification for the sake of ratification”. Simply because Singapore had not ratified those treaties did not mean that those principles were not applied — in fact, they were, but it did not agree with certain provisions.
On the lack of a national human rights commission, she said the end goal was to achieve gender equality. Singapore felt that aim could be achieved through its existing mechanisms. The inter-ministerial committee was an important element of that machinery, and, in fact, went beyond the scope of the Convention to encompass other critical human rights elements. It was also supported by the Office of Women’s Development, which was able to address new and emerging issues in a more targeted way.
On budgets for women’s issues, it was difficult to state a figure as the ministries all worked collectively. Through all those offices, she said, a strong budget was available. Singapore believed that the “different” approach brought together more areas of expertise, she added.
More than half of those working in the civil service were women, another member of the delegation said. All of those employees underwent a series of obligatory training on the protection of the rights of different stakeholder groups, including women, which naturally imposed a gender perspective. There was also, increasingly, a requirement to engage in consultation with the affected stakeholders before a new legislation was enacted. All law-enforcement professionals were strictly trained on handling gender issues, and abided by strict guidelines.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
VIOLETA NEUBAUER, expert member from Slovenia, said it appeared that a number of ministries, including that of finance, did not participate in the Government group dedicated to the implementation of the Convention. She asked whether gender mainstreaming was widely applied or if there was a more narrow approach. Regarding special temporary measures of affirmative action, she said that was not enough to treat women equally in many areas. Often, special measures were required to fulfil the treaty obligations. The problem was not always disadvantages of women, but the advantages already enjoyed by men. She asked if proactive efforts were being considered to help increase women’s participation on boards of public organizations and to ensure participation of women with disabilities.
AYSE FERIDE ACAR, expert member from Turkey, said she was concerned about the overemphasis on women’s beauty in Singapore, including increased plastic surgery, which reinforced the idea of women as sex objects. In addition, she said, it appeared that the role of men as heads of households was being reinforced. She asked what kinds of programmes were being put in place to counter those stereotypes. Regarding the remaining reservations to the Convention, she said “it was important to achieve equality of results, not just equality of opportunity”.
NAELA MOHAMED GABR, expert member from Egypt, recommended a review of best practices of other Muslim countries to see how sharia was integrated. She encouraged the ratification of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on Domestic Workers. On trafficking, she asked if the Government was working with civil society organizations. She said the legal definition of trafficking was too narrow, and she asked about services for the protection of victims and witnesses. She also asked when the Government might accede to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol) of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.
SOLEDAD MURILLO DE LA VEGA, expert member from Spain, congratulated Singapore on having extended maternity leave, but said the father’s responsibility for child care was not addressed strongly enough. She noted also that women could not do military service. Pointing to advertisements in magazines, she asked if Singapore regulated international marriage agencies, and if the Government intervened to assist women who developed problems in the resulting marriages. She asked also what was done to prevent discrimination against divorced single mothers or widows. Finally, she asked how violence against domestic workers was addressed.
SILVIA PIMENTEL, Committee Chairperson and expert member from Brazil, asked how a grievance of gender stereotyping could be brought, if a general anti-discrimination law was being considered and if reform of censorship laws on homosexual matters was being considered. She also asked about laws to prevent domestic violence in the context of same-sex relationships.
ISMAT JAHAN, expert member from Bangladesh, said that, in practice, trafficking victims were usually deported, so they were discouraged from reporting the crime, and as a result, few substantiated cases had been brought to justice. The full means called for by the Palermo Protocol, therefore, was not being applied. She asked what was being done to redress the situation, as well as what kind of monitoring of the trafficking task force was being conducted. She added that restrictive immigration laws could increase trafficking. On domestic foreign workers, she asked if separate legislation for their protection was being considered. Finally, she asked about protection measures for foreign wives.
ZOHRA RASEKH, Vice-Chairperson and expert member from Afghanistan, asked about the mandate and accomplishments of the anti-trafficking task force, as well as about any efforts to reduce the demand for trafficked women or to educate migrant workers to prevent them from becoming victims of trafficking. She also asked about funding for non-governmental organizations working to help trafficking victims and about education to help migrants from falling into trafficking or other forced servitude.
VIOLET TSISIGA AWORI, Committee Rapporteur and expert member from Kenya, said that Singapore’s definition of trafficking was narrower than the language in the Palermo Protocol, so the full extent of trafficking might not be confronted. Training for law enforcement and other stakeholders was also needed. She asked about monitoring and assessment of the trafficking task force.
Ms. YACOB agreed with the gravity of the trafficking situation and the need to continually step up efforts on vigilance and legal measures. She said that the law allowed targeting both domestic and overseas traffickers. While the country was not a party to the Palermo Protocol, the language of that instrument had been adopted in addressing the issue. In addition, the claims of those who said they were victims of trafficking were taken seriously. There was a template for law enforcement officers to elicit information to determine whether or not a person was a victim, and they were trained to deal with trauma. Resources were available to deal with foreign-language victims. There were clear guidelines on investigating trafficking claims.
Victims, she said, were provided shelter, and the sufficiency of the three existing shelters was constantly reviewed. At present, the facilities were only 80 per cent full. There were also networking systems to ensure that victims’ needs were met. Foreign embassies had been contacted to ensure that information on victims was passed on to the law-enforcement authorities, but often there was no follow-up. That area had to be strengthened. The approach to trafficking was proactive. More than 40 per cent of investigated cases arose from that proactive approach. The task force coordinated all related initiatives and worked with the international inter-agency task force, and had worked with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). A forthcoming national plan of action would augment those initiatives with awareness-raising programmes.
Specific to public education campaigns, a delegate said that Singapore, along with other member States of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was part of an initiative of the organization Child Wise on child sex tourism. Diligent border checks served to interrupt the supply of victims, and perpetrators were subjected to tough penalties. All suspected sex workers were questioned in several languages, and those identified as victims were treated as victims. In 2010 alone, she said, 24 child sex tourism perpetrators had been arrested.
On the rights of foreign domestic workers, a delegate from the Ministry of Manpower said that Singapore engaged in the regular review of legislation, enforcement and outreach measures. There was extensive coverage of the rights of those workers. All employers were responsible for adequate conditions, health, housing and the personal well-being of their foreign employees, and those who did not comply could be prosecuted and punished.
The new employment agencies act had been enacted specifically to make sure that employment agents could not charge exorbitant rates, she continued. While Singapore’s strong regulatory framework had drawn many foreign domestic workers, a survey had shown that most were happy. Seven out of ten surveyed said that they intended to stay in Singapore beyond the length of their current contract, and almost 90 per cent were aware of their employment rights.
Regulating domestic work was difficult, she said, and would require further review and consultation with stakeholders. Singapore was reviewing the sufficiency of its current provisions, including penalties for those violating the rights of domestic workers.
On the portrayal of women in the media, a delegate from the Ministry of Health said that a multipronged approach was in place. Self-esteem and positive body images were used in schools, as were emotion management programmes and other supportive services. Medical practitioners that did not follow national laws on aesthetic practices were liable to penalties, she added. They were also subject to publicity regulations, requiring that ads be factual and not misleading. Only licensed institutions could advertise medical procedures, and an advertising standards monitoring body existed.
Another delegate said that Singapore had adopted a definition of “head of household” to mean the person generally acknowledged as such by other members of the household, or the person who managed the family’s affairs. That definition was quite gender neutral, she pointed out. Efforts had been made in recent years to emphasize the importance of role-sharing in families. Initiatives were under way in public schools to promote active fatherhood, and they were beginning to gain traction and bear fruit.
Currently, she said, only male citizens had mandatory military service. However, no rule existed excluding women from serving if they so chose. Furthermore, it was not true that men in national service earned more than women; in fact, in many occupations the reverse was true. Taking the floor, another delegate said that matchmaking agencies in Singapore were registered legally; while the industry was not officially regulated, those services gained credibility by becoming accredited. Such agencies also had to abide by advertising guidelines, including requirements that ads portray images respectful of human dignity, and that they never promise or guarantee marriages, among others. If they failed to comply, their ads would not be published.
It was true that the Ministry of Finance and others were not represented in the inter-ministerial committee. That was because their work was not directly relevant to ensuring the equality of women, she said. Those ministries would be consulted if issues related to their subject matter arose. The fact that the Ministry of Finance, in particular, was not represented did not mean that financial issues were neglected, she stressed. However, further engagement with that Ministry could be proposed.
Singapore felt that special temporary measures should only be used in very urgent cases or to rectify severe imbalances, she added. The country believed that its policies were, by and large, gender neutral, and that temporary special measures, therefore, were not required.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Ms. SCHULZ, expert from Switzerland, again asked what prevented the ratification of treaties, if Singapore was already living by their principles. Did the country plan to repeal the section of the Penal Code on male homosexuality? In a related vein, the delegation had not responded to the question about the status of lesbians. Could the delegation explain whether all employment discrimination cases could be brought to court, or if any exceptions existed?
Unfortunately, she said, she still had not fully grasped the situation of the Convention’s implementation in Singapore. It still seemed that the treaty was not domesticated. Could the delegation offer a comment?
Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ, expert member from Croatia, referred to the “Ministry of Manpower”, which she said was oddly named considering the issues under review today. With respect to the partial withdrawal of reservations to the Convention, she felt that good answers had been given, but additional questions existed, including whether article 2 would be domesticated and how it would fit into national law. Why did reservations still exist to article 2(a) if, in fact, no discrimination existed?
Ms. ACAR, expert from Turkey, called for more information about the “head of household” definition. In the last census, what percentage of household heads had been men, based on the criteria mentioned? What was being done to counteract the prevalent attitudes that men were automatically the heads of households?
Ms. MURILLO DE LA VEGA, expert from Spain, said that the implementation of the Convention was still not seen in Singapore. She requested more information on the controls placed on marriage agencies, and asked the delegation to discuss its policy on marriages with immigrants. Additionally, was paternity leave considered a right in Singapore?
RUTH HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert member from Israel, appreciated the wide process of consultation, which the delegation had described in many instances of legislative drafting, as well as the work Singapore had done with experts aimed at harmonizing of domestic law with sharia. She wondered if there were women on the Islamic Religious Council, and whether any women leaders represented the Muslim community at large.
Ms. POPESCU, Vice-Chairperson and expert from Romania, asked again about the domestication of the Convention. She was concerned, in particular, about its position in Singapore’s dual legal system. What had the Government done, including by enacting special laws, to attempt to domesticate it? If it was not incorporated into domestic law in some way, she stressed, the Convention was essentially “useless”. Additionally, the delegation had noted that it was not possible to invoke the Convention directly in courts. What measures were being taken to change that fact?
Secondly, she returned to the issue of a human rights commission. While the delegation had stated that its inter-ministerial committee performed an equivalent function to such a body, “they’re completely different”, she emphasized. The inter-ministerial committee was a Government body with a precise mandate related to the Convention, while a human rights body was designed as an independent institution in line with the Paris Principles. The creation of such a commission would help Singapore go beyond the declared level of its commitment, she said, encouraging it do so and to report to the Committee on a proposed timeframe.
The head of the delegation took note of the expert’s comment regarding the name of the “Ministry of Manpower”, and said that she would pass the comment along to the appropriate parties within the Ministry.
She said that questions about the domestication of the Convention had already been fully addressed, and further reassured the Committee that Singapore’s adherence to the principles of the Convention was not a “mere declaration”. The intent and purpose of its domestic laws were aligned with the Convention, if not, with all of its exact language.
Taking the floor to augment that explanation, another member of the delegation said that Singapore’s dualist system, by which domestic laws took precedence, was used and respected by many other countries. Nevertheless, the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the country’s Constitution, including those in article XII, were enforceable in court; since those constitutional laws were well aligned with the Convention, they were subsequently also respected. She also reminded the Committee that while international treaties were not directly applicable in court, the courts themselves would refer to them in their decisions. That had been done in several instances, which had set a legal precedent.
Regarding article 2 of the Convention, she wished to correct the misperception that Singapore’s was a wide-ranging reservation. In fact, the reservation referred only to personal and religious law. Both Articles 2 and 16 appeared elsewhere in national law, outside of those limited areas.
Moving to article 5 of the Convention, she elaborated on Singapore’s domestic framework, which protected women from family violence. Victims of such crimes could apply directly to courts for protection; family violence was a “sizeable” offence, and if one was found guilty, serious penalties existed. Other articles supplemented the Constitution in protecting citizens from violent acts. Further, under the implementation framework, women could apply for immediate protection and temporary assistance, including shelter. Medical and other services were also available through a network of providers.
A delegate from the Islamic Religious Council added that, in 2006, a fatwa had been enacted allowing women to sit on the appeals boards of sharia courts; several initial appointments of women had since been made, marking the significant entry of women into sharia courts in Singapore and “setting a tone” for the future. Women had also sat on the Islamic Religious Council, he said, and among other recent progress, seven female religious scholars had been appointed to serve as advisers to the Council.
Turning to the question of a national human rights commission, the head of the delegation reiterated that the goals and objectives of gender equality could be achieved under Singapore’s current structure. She was not aware of any legislation requiring the heads of household to be men; any other understanding of the matter was a misconception.
It was not possible to “100 per cent eradicate” negative stereotypes, she said, but many efforts were under way to do so, especially through measures targeting fathers. “The mindsets are changing,” she said, but added “it is a work in progress”.
There were no plans in place to repeal section 377(a) of the Penal Code. That had been vigorously debated in Parliament, resulting in divided views. The general approach, however, was that the provision would not be enforced unless a complaint was filed. There was no systemic discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people, she emphasized. With regard to censorship, all movies, including those with such themes, were subjected to the same review by a board of censors as all other movies.
Addressing concerns raised about the welfare of foreign brides, she said such wives were able to apply to stay in the country on their own merits, regardless of actions taken by a spouse or ex-spouse. Legal provisions and enforcement agencies existed to regulate matchmaking agencies, she added.
Paternity leave was not guaranteed by law, but was offered by nearly half of employers, she said. The practice was gaining traction. Singapore did indeed hope to see more women on the boards of publicly traded companies; efforts were under way through the Board Agenda Project to ask companies to consciously place women on their boards. A gender-neutral master plan on disabilities was in place in Singapore, though it was currently under review in an effort to make it more comprehensive.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
OLINDA BAREIRO-BOBADILLA, expert from Paraguay, welcomed progress in parliamentary representation of women, but asked if parliamentarians were involved in decisions on the national budget. She suggested that they could then better finance the ministries related to women’s interests. She also asked about the nature of the inter-ministerial committee on the Convention’s implementation. She expressed concern over the lack of mechanisms to promote proportionality in the legislature. She also asked about the role of the Islamic Council in the inter-ministerial committee, and about women’s movements in the country.
MARIA HELENA LOPES DE JESUS PIRES, expert member from Timor-Leste, said there seemed to be discrepancies in the number of women Members of Parliament. She wondered if there were structural or societal difficulties for women who wanted to enter public life and if there were special organizations to help them. She also asked about the participation of minority women in various programmes. Finally, she asked if there was an electoral commission and, if so, whether women were included in it.
ZOU XIAOQIAO, expert member from China, welcomed the lifting on reservations on granting of nationality for children of foreign-born parents and asked about the situation of children born before that reservation had been withdrawn. She also asked for information about obtaining permanent-residency status by foreign-born wives.
Ms. YACOB said the discrepancy in the figures for Parliament resulted from the loss of one woman’s seat in Parliament in the last election, with the loss of a women minister as well. There was a women’s wing in the ruling party structure, which pursued reforms to policies affecting women; for example, removing the quota concerning medical students. She stressed that women in Parliament had more impact than their numbers would suggest.
On disabilities services in schools, she said there was training for teachers to allow regular schools to admit children with disabilities, as well as well-resourced special schools. On the situation of divorced foreign wives, she said they could apply for special visas; other immigration laws were gender neutral and a minimum residential period was applied before permanent residency was granted. There were more than 1 million foreign workers in the country, which was a huge portion of the population.
A delegate from the Foreign Ministry added that divorced spouses retained their permanent residency or citizenship gained while they were married, and foreign wives received equal protection under the law. Information had been disseminated about such issues. Approximately 9 out of 10 applications of foreign spouses for citizenship between 2006 and 2010 had been granted.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Ms. ZOU, expert from China, said significant progress had been made in Singapore with regard to the education of women. Were its training centres open to women seeking to enter or re-enter the workforce, and women with very limited skills or experience? Were they open to foreign workers? If not, what programmes were open to foreign workers? Additionally, the report noted that the compulsory education act excluded children with disabilities, she said, asking the delegation to clarify its position.
NIKLAS BRUUN, expert member from Finland, recalled that, despite the Committee’s recommendation that Singapore withdraw its reservation to article 11, it had not done so. An in-depth study of the content of that article had not been conducted by Singapore, it seemed, as the country already adhered to most of its obligations. Why did Singapore then continue to maintain its reservation to paragraph 1(d), regarding women in the labour market? He hoped the delegation could assure the Committee that it would at least reassess its withdrawal.
Additionally, did Singapore conduct objective job evaluations? Were remedies available to those who suffered from the non-compliance of an employer with regard to the principle of equal work for equal pay? Laws could be used to prosecute sexual harassment in the workplace, but he said that even more effective legislation was needed. Was Singapore paying special attention to the problems that vulnerable categories of women might face in the workplace?
On the issue of foreign domestic workers, Ms. HAYASHI, expert from Japan, drew attention to the point in the report that such workers were given the choice of additional compensation, instead of rest days. Why did only foreign workers lack compulsory rest days? On the resolution of employment disputes in which employers were at fault, she asked for figures on the number of foreign domestic workers who had actually submitted complaints under the conciliation provision. How many had received compensation? Had they been able to find another employer, following the settlement?
Finally, she noted that migrant foreign domestic workers in Singapore were subjected to mandatory tests for HIV and pregnancy. Were either of those findings grounds for deportation, and if so, did that not violate their rights?
PRAMILA PATTEN, expert member from Mauritius, also asked about sexual harassment in the workplace. Could the delegation clarify under what law employees could seek redress from management? To what extent did the Penal Code contain an adequate definition of sexual harassment? Had it developed a national sexual harassment prevention strategy?
It was commendable that mothers were given 16 weeks maternity leave, she said. However, the policy suffered from problems of implementation; furthermore, it seemed to be limited to citizens and to married women. One example of an implementation gap was the case of Singapore Airlines, which required pregnant flight attendants to resign. Were the current penalties for sexual discrimination in the workplace sufficiently strict? Had a study been conducted to measure the impact of work-life balance initiatives? Many companies were still not embracing such programmes, she said. What new measures were envisaged to encourage the participation of women in the workforce?
On article 11 of the Convention, which addressed health, MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert member from Cuba, expressed concern about the situation of certain “invisible” women in Singapore. Employers had been responsible for guaranteeing health services since 2006, she recalled. Had a follow-up assessment been taken on the effects of that change on the health of women migrant workers?
How did Singapore ensure that workers were not laid off in an effort by employers not to make health payments, or that women were not prevented from leaving work to have medical checkups? she asked. She also echoed concern about mandatory HIV and pregnancy tests for migrant women workers. What measures were adopted for compliance with, and follow-up to, anti-discrimination rules in the workplace? Finally, she asked about a reference made in the report to an increase in medical coverage for older women and those with severe disabilities. Why was that increase restricted to those with “severe” disabilities only?
Ms. PIMENTEL, Chairperson and expert from Brazil, asked whether women undergoing childbirth and other necessary health procedures, who were not covered by health insurance, had access to free prenatal, antenatal and related care in hospitals? Was pre- and post-test counselling, or provisions for treatment, available for those found to be living with HIV/AIDS? Would Singapore consider the recognition of same-sex partnerships in order to make health-care benefits more equitable?
Moving to article 16, Ms. HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, asked if the name “Women’s Charter” might be changed to a more general “Family Code”. In areas of sharia, such as the need for wali permission to marry, polygamy and unequal inheritance rights, she wondered if more harmonization with domestic laws could be sought. Why not adopt the position that there was a presumption that a man was never able to provide for second wife? That would leave the law in place, but end polygamy in practice.
Regarding civil family law, especially divorce, Singapore offered a very liberal understanding of the consequences of divorce, she said. However, a stay-at-home mother might receive less property in a divorce. Could the delegation provide more information on that, as well as on the distribution of intangible property and future earning potential? Relating to maintenance, she wondered if there was a framework for the Government to provide for women and children who were not able to collect debts from men who defaulted on their payments.
Marital rape was only defined as a crime in cases when the couple no longer lived together, she noted, which was “extremely alarming”. Could the delegation provide information on any changes envisaged? Lastly, what were the rights of de facto unions, or those couples not formally married?
A delegate explained that the Government had carefully considered the withdrawal of reservations, but found that the reservation concerning article 11 was necessary. It was not the only country to have reached that conclusion, she said. Nonetheless, the inter-ministerial committee would keep the matter under active review. “We are not saying we are closing the door,” she said.
A delegate from the Ministry of Manpower said that the 50 continuing education and training centres, the “pride of Singapore”, was in fact available to all people regardless of gender or other factors. More than 270,000 workers were training in 2010 alone, he said, half of them women. Specific training programmes also existed for foreign domestic workers. Employers who did not provide their foreign domestic workers with sufficient rest were liable to be punished, he added. The Government was considering a legal weekly requirement for rest; however, the issue was a complex one and required wide consultation.
Regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, Singapore had in place a tripartite approach. When the harassment was of a criminal nature, offenders could be prosecuted and faced high fines, caning or prison time. Rates of sexual harassment in the workplace had been found by a recent survey to be on par with those of the European Union, he added.
Another delegate said that medical insurance for migrant workers had been raised from $5,000 to $15,000 annually. The exclusion of children with severe disabilities from compulsory schooling was for their own benefit, as many could not function in normal schools. Exclusion, therefore, protected their parents from being prosecuted for not sending them to school.
Most of Singapore’s laws were gender neutral and did not consider the sexual orientation of a person in their application, he said. Therefore, all rights, services and mechanisms available were accessible by both hetero- and homosexual people alike.
Another delegate said that pre- and post-HIV test counselling was available, and described an individual health savings account that she said was available to almost all Singaporeans, as well as complementary funds and services. Pregnant women also enjoyed the same benefits, she said. Lastly, as there was no rural population in Singapore, no comparative statistics were available. She referred the Committee to a website for other health-related data.
Yet another member of the delegation said that two measures provided protection for pregnant employees: the employees act, and the child core savings and development act, which was designed to encourage women to have children. The name of the Women’s Charter had been debated, she said, and might be changed in the future if some structural adjustments were first made. Singapore was making progress through its incentives to companies for instituting flexible work patterns. Additionally, Singapore Airlines was making changes to its policy on pregnant women. Overall, complaints on pregnancy-related discrimination had decreased in recent years, she said.
On reservations to article 16, some progress had been made, but it was important for Singapore to move at a pace acceptable to its community at large, she said. The focus in the future would be on how to improve the status of women under Muslim law. The country would constantly revisit and review the issue. Finally, she said that marital rape had been addressed as far as it could be at this time, but it would be revisited in the future.
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