In October, representatives from the groups belonging to our coalition (AWARE, HOME, Project X and Sayoni) travelled to the United Nations in Geneva to participate in the 68th session of CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). We were raising concerns set out in our report to the CEDAW Committee.
CEDAW, adopted by the UN in 1979, is a treaty defining and prohibiting discrimination against women. Nations who are parties – as Singapore has been since 1995 – are obliged to end inequitable laws, policies and practices and promote gender equality at all levels. Every few years, Singapore reports to a panel of international experts, the UN CEDAW Committee, on its progress. This was Singapore’s fifth periodic review.
NGO participation is integral to this process. While the state submits its own report to the Committee, NGOs also provide additional information based on their experience and research. In 2011, some NGOs took part as individual groups; while this time, a coalition of 13 NGOs engaged actively in the process, together with other groups.
As preparation, we attended a 3-day training session conducted by IWRAW-AP, a regional/international NGO working with CEDAW as a main tool for change in the Asia Pacific. This prepared us on engaging effectively with the Committee, and allowed us to better understand the key principles underlying CEDAW, its implementation and how international human rights standards should inform our advocacy back home. It was also a chance for us to meet with and learn from activists from other countries (in this case, Burkina Faso, Paraguay and Nauru).
The oral statements
The 68th CEDAW session kicked off on 23 October with the NGO oral statements, where NGO representatives presented priority issues to the Committee. Jolene Tan, AWARE’s Head of Research and Advocacy, spoke on behalf of the coalition (video), as well as HOME/TWC2 and Centre for Domestic Employees, and raised issues of sexual violence, migrant wives, Muslim family law, employment discrimination and migrant domestic workers. Speakers from Sayoni, Project X and ILC-Tsao Foundation representing LBT women, sex workers and older women respectively (video), gave their statements highlighting the concerns of these vulnerable groups. It was a particularly powerful moment to hear the voices of marginalised women such as LBT women and sex workers – so often ignored in Singapore – on an international platform. This was followed by a round of questions from the Committee, and the speakers provided clarifications.
The lunch briefing
The next day, the NGOs engaged Committee members at a private lunch briefing where we provided more context and information. It was a critical time to raise priority concerns and recommendations, as the Committee members may then pose questions based on them to the State during the Constructive Dialogue the following day.
The Constructive Dialogue with the State
This was the big day: the CEDAW Committee, armed with information from the State’s report, NGOs and other sources, engaged the delegation from the Singapore government to assist the government in better understanding and fulfilling its obligations under CEDAW.
This began with a presentation by the Singapore delegation, headed by Muhammad Faishal Bin Ibrahim Khan Surattee, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Social and Family Development and for the Ministry of Education. The Committee members then raised questions and offered recommendations as to how Singapore can better comply with CEDAW standards. Below is a summary of the key issues discussed. You may watch the full session here and here. You can also read live tweets of the review process here. Some of the key issues raised are as follows:
- Anti-discrimination legislation and formal enshrinement of gender equality: The Experts asked for a roadmap to adopting legislation against discrimination on all grounds, including noting that the Constitution does not explicitly define sex and gender as prohibited grounds for discrimination. Despite the State’s claims that Article 12 of the Constitution protects all persons from discrimination, it was queried whether this really amounts to a prohibition on substantive discrimination, and one Expert noted that LBTQ women are not protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation, as evidenced by the outcome of the 2014 court challenge to s377A.
- National machinery for the advancement of gender equality: How will the Government strengthen its commitment to implementing CEDAW, including financial budgeting for it and strategising for collaboration with NGOs?
- Women’s political representation: Experts expressed concern about the underrepresentation of women in public life, questioning why temporary special measures are not taken to accelerate equality, and work towards substantive equality.
- ‘Head of household’: An Expert proposed the abolition of the ‘head of household’ concept, she described as reinforcing the gender hierarchy. The State said it will take these comments into consideration for their next census reporting in 2020.
- Violence against women: Experts pointed to the limitations of laws – the indicators in the Trafficking Act do not match international standards; and it is expensive to bring a complaint under harassment legislation. Domestic and sexual violence are underreported, despite the existence of a general police helpline, so more needs to be done to facilitate and increase reporting, especially gender sensitivity training at all levels of law enforcement. Singapore has still not repealed marital immunity for rape.
- LBT women: Experts asked about the protection of human rights of LBT women, pointing out the media censorship of LGBT persons, lack of registered same-sex societies, and barriers faced in employment and healthcare. Sexuality education in schools fail to mention LGBTI persons. Transgender people in particular, get treated badly by front-line officers. The State claimed that LGBT persons had access to employment and “did not have to hide their sexual orientation”, but did not address the specific questions on protection of LBT women, their access to healthcare, media censorship, sexuality education and transgender persons.
- Migrant domestic workers: Experts expressed puzzlement at why migrant domestic workers are not covered under the Employment Act, denying them rights such as public holidays, paid sick leave, maternity leave and overtime pay. In spite of existing laws and sanctions, there is still abuse and violence against these workers by employers. The State was also asked to explain why no progress had been made in implementing the recommendation to abolish mandatory pregnancy testing for migrant domestic workers.
- Muslim family law: The Committee criticised the continuing reservations to key CEDAW Articles which supposedly protect minority rights. Minority rights cannot be prioritised over women’s individual human rights. An Expert pointed out that Muslim family law continue to disadvantage Muslim women, in areas of inheritance, the need for a male guardian’s consent for marriage, underage marriage, talaq divorce and polygamy, and urged for reform in these laws for better compliance with CEDAW.
- Sex workers: Experts wanted to understand how exploitation of sex workers was dealt with, and raised the issue of violence against sex workers by law enforcement officers. The State explained that sex work was legal but measures were being taken against pimps to combat any exploitative situation. They stated their general opposition to police abuse of any kind but did not elaborate further on the specific allegations of abuse of sex workers.
We now await the Committee’s concluding observations. Based on the points raised during the Constructive Dialogue, the Concluding Observations report will contain the Committee’s recommendations and priority issues for the State to follow-up on within two years (you can read the Concluding Observations from the 2011 periodic review here). The State will have the next few years to consider and implement the recommendations before their next periodic review.
What comes next?
The training and process provided valuable knowledge and experience for all the NGOs involved. Throughout the week, the NGOs also built strong relationships with each other, and we hope to continue to work together in solidarity. Our work on CEDAW does not end in Geneva. Civil society – as does the general public – has a responsibility in monitoring the State’s efforts in promoting gender equality for all women. Moving forward, we hope that the State would take the Committee’s recommendations onboard and also engage meaningfully and robustly with civil society in implementing CEDAW.