Commentary: Singapore’s streets are comparatively safe, but women still face sexual danger
The streets of Singapore may be safer for women than the streets of London – where Sarah Everard was kidnapped and murdered. But far too many sexual offences are being committed here, says AWARE president Margaret Thomas.
SINGAPORE: On Mar 3, 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard went missing in London while walking home from a friend’s house at around 9pm.
About a week later, a London police officer was charged with her murder. Hours after his appearance in court on Mar 13, the Metropolitan Police clashed with civilians who gathered to mourn Everard’s death and protest the lack of security women feel when out alone.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, the Met Police said any vigil “would be unlawful and unsafe”. Video footage revealed scuffles and police officers forcing women to the ground, while witnesses report police dragging several women away.
Sarah Everard’s case has triggered debate worldwide about women’s safety in public spaces and how those in charge fail, or even betray, the people they are meant to protect.
The streets of Singapore may be much safer for women than the streets of London. After all, Singapore is consistently ranked as one of the world’s safest cities.
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But the relative safety of Singapore’s public spaces belies the constant threat of sexual assault and harassment in other spaces. A recent spate of cases show how women and girls are vulnerable in private-hire vehicles, classrooms, hotel rooms and their own homes.
Earlier this month, on Mar 8, we celebrated International Women’s Day. Yet on that day, two men were sentenced to jail and caning for sexual crimes.
One man sexually abused his four-year-old daughter multiple times over the course of a few months, while the other, pretending to be a Grab driver, offered a woman a lift home then molested her in the back of his van.
Since Mar 8, there have been at least a dozen other reports in the media of court cases of sexual offences – rape, molest, upskirt video filming and stealing women’s underwear.
We couldn’t wait to put the illicit SG Nasi Lemak Telegram chats behind us. And yet on Tuesday (Mar 30), the police are investigating new chat groups sharing obscene visuals of women including commuters on the MRT or girls in school uniforms, many without the subjects’ consent.
TOO MANY CASES GO UNREPORTED
These were just the cases that were reported. But far too many continue to go unreported.
In the US, as many as three in four sexual assaults may go unreported. The World Health Organisation says in Latin America, only around 5 per cent of cases of adult sexual violence are reported to the police.
In Singapore, while more women are these days ready to report incidences of sexual assault, many still hold back, for a variety of reasons.
They may feel they do not have strong enough evidence for a police report, or if the perpetrator is someone they know, such as a family member, they may be reluctant to get that person into trouble. Others may not want to have to relive the trauma, or they feel no-one is going to believe them.
At AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre, only three in 10 clients decide to file police reports.
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THE NEED FOR EDUCATION
Concern about the seemingly growing incidence of sexual assault and harassment led Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam to announce the raising of maximum penalties for certain sexual offences, including molest and carrying out sexual activity in the presence of a minor.
He also declared last September that it is vitally important for boys and girls to be taught at a young age that they should respect each other. Gender equality must become a fundamental value in Singapore if we are to have any hope of reducing the number of these cases, he said.
Mr Shanmugam is absolutely right. We need major shifts in mindsets, norms and patterns of behaviour, and for this to happen the messaging and the teaching needs to start when kids are very young.
Listen to Minister K Shanmugam give his frank take on women's issues, sexual assault and NS on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
But will the policymakers be able to do what’s necessary?
A critical part of this teaching will have to be about sex and sexuality. Kids need to learn how to handle relationships, they need to understand the concept of consent and why it is so important.
And they need to learn about sex and sexuality and the various forms of sexual desire, including the fetishes that drive some people to steal underwear, film people in the shower and so on.
These lessons have, of course, to be age-appropriate, but at some point our young will need knowledge and understanding of the full spectrum of human sexuality. Those who find themselves drawn to behaviour that may get them into legal and other trouble need to know they should seek professional help.
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SQUEAMISH ABOUT SEX ED
Many are still squeamish about having frank conversations around sex and sexuality. A 2020 survey conducted by AWARE and independent research agency Blackbox found that only half of 564 surveyed parents felt comfortable talking with their children about sex, with a quarter worrying the discussion would encourage their children to have sex.
These parents might prefer that their children’s education on sexuality start and end at abstinence until marriage.
However, a 2009 UNESCO review of sexuality education programmes around the world found that programmes that emphasised condom and contraceptive use alongside abstinence were more effective than abstinence-only programmes at three important goals: Delaying students’ initiation of sexual intercourse, decreasing the frequency of sexual intercourse and decreasing the number of sexual partners.
And the United Nations Population Fund’s 2015 Evaluation of Comprehensive Sexuality Education Programmes notes that young people who undergo comprehensive sexuality education “adopt more egalitarian attitudes about gender roles” and are “less likely to be in relationships characterised by violence”.
Sexuality education in our schools is guided by the Education Ministry’s curriculum, which it describes as “holistic and secular”. It is taught, MOE says, “in the context of mainstream national values, according to students’ development needs”.
How these values are interpreted, however, is to some extent down to schools and teachers in classes conducting them. The recent case involving a transgender student whose charges were refuted by MOE shows there are tensions which cannot be easily resolved.
But finding a way to address changing norms and behaviours is an important part of the discussion we will need to have.
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What is also needed is education about the role of bystanders. We all need to understand what is right and what is wrong, and what we can and should do when we witness or hear about instances of wrong behaviour.
If we see a couple fighting, and the man appears to be hurting the woman, should we intervene? If a man appears to be pressing himself against a schoolgirl in a crowded bus or train, should we do something?
And if a colleague or friend or family member looks troubled and hesitantly begins to tell you about an incident of sexual assault, will you be able to respond with the empathy and support they need? Many people will not know what to say or do.
This is where public education programmes like AWARE’s Sexual Assault First Responder Training will help. The AWARE workshop, which is open to all members of the public and schools, explains what is sexual assault and harassment; what is consent; how sexual assault affects survivors, and how we can provide support.
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Finally, what is perhaps most needed as we try to reduce the incidence of all forms of sexual assault is for men to stand up and speak out about the bad behaviour of other men.
Take a stand against boorish behaviour, the locker-room talk and sexist jokes that pitch men as the sexual conquerors and women as the submissive vessels for men’s pleasure.
The times have changed. Men need to catch up.
Margaret Thomas is President of AWARE and a former journalist.