UN experts repeat call for laws to enshrine gender equality in Singapore

This post was originally published as a press release on 22 November 2017.

Image credit: Sayoni

The United Nations’ CEDAW committee has repeated its recommendation that Singapore include in its Constitution or laws a definition and prohibition of all forms of discrimination against women.

The Committee, comprising international experts, issued its recommendations in a document “Concluding Observations” on Tuesday 21 Nov following the discussions it had in Geneva in October with a delegation from the Singapore government. The recommendations are to guide Singapore in fulfilling its obligations under the women’s human rights treaty CEDAW (Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).

Emphasising the “crucial role of the legislative power in ensuring the full implementation” of CEDAW, the Committee urged Singapore’s Parliament to “take the necessary steps” to implement its recommendations.

A key call is for legislation to define and prohibit discrimination against women. In the previous CEDAW review in 2011, the Committee had called for the same change. It cited the 2014 Court of Appeal case of Lim Meng Suang, which ruled that the Constitution presently forbids only discrimination on grounds of “religion, race, descent or place of birth”.

The Committee formulates Concluding Observations following a thorough review process, taking into account information from various sources, including reports prepared by the State, other UN agencies and NGOs, as well as oral statements made by NGOs in Geneva on 23 October 2017. This was followed by a day-long “Constructive Dialogue” in Geneva on 25 October 2017, during which the Committee posed questions to and heard answers from the Singapore delegation.

Particular attention is also paid to ending gender-based violence against women, with the Committee highlighting the provision of gender-sensitivity training at all levels of the criminal justice system and the systematic collection of disaggregated data on such violence as among the key areas for the state’s immediate follow-up.

The Concluding Observations cover a range of topics relevant to gender equality, based on CEDAW articles. Their recommendations include:

  • Singapore is urged to eliminate the concept of “head of household” in all policy- and decision-making, and to promote equal sharing of family responsibilities.
  • Domestic workers should receive the same labour protections as other workers, including under the Employment Act, and restrictions on their changes of employer should be revised.
  • Marital immunity for rape should be abolished, as was also recommended in the 2011 Concluding Observations.
  • The Administration of Muslim Law Act should be reviewed to provide women with equal rights as men in marriage, divorce and inheritance, including through prohibiting polygamy.
  • Gender stereotypes, including in media coverage of politics, need to be combatted.
  • To tackle workplace harassment, the Government should ensure that all employers implement the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment.
  • Disaggregated data on older women, including those belonging to vulnerable groups, should be collected and used to formulate policies and programmes which take into account their specific needs.
  • Lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women should be protected against all forms of discrimination in law and in practice. Discriminatory stereotypes about them should be combatted through public education and in the media.
  • All foreign wives of citizens should have the long-term visit pass plus, ensuring their rights to work and access to healthcare subsidies. Criteria to obtain permanent residency should be transparent, and granted automatically to all qualified foreign spouses.
  • A concrete action plan to implement CEDAW and its recommendations should be adopted, in collaboration with civil society.

Said Malathi Das, Chair of the NGO Coalition which submitted a joint report on gender inequalities to the UN CEDAW Committee in October, “The Coalition is delighted that our report was thoroughly considered during the Singapore state review process, and that the Committee regarded our findings valuable.”

Stephanie Chok of migrant workers’ rights group, HOME, said, “Many migrant workers, especially women domestic workers, labour under slavery-like conditions. Not only does their marginalised status leave them vulnerable to abuse, justice remains elusive. Protection is limited and multiple obstacles exist to hinder effective redress. The Committee’s recommendations need to be taken seriously by the Singapore government if we truly appreciate their positive contributions to our country.”

Jean Chong, of LBT women’s rights group, Sayoni, said, “We are pleased that the Committee again expresses concern on the lived realities and discrimination faced by lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer women living in Singapore. We call on the government to address state policies and laws that promotes discrimination and violence on LBTQ persons, and to find the courage to do what is right.”

NGOs also urge the Government to work closely with civil society to implement the recommendations.

Said Malathi Das, “Until the next review, the Coalition intends to work closely with our fellow NGOs to follow up on the recommendations, and invite the State to engage with us during this process. We hope that with more knowledge of the purpose and process of CEDAW, more NGOs will understand the need to work together to realise the promise of CEDAW for women in Singapore.”

Said Halijah Mohamad, vice-president of the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers, “We are pleased that the recommendations of the CEDAW committee reflected most of the  concerns in our coalition report. We hope the government will give the recommendations serious consideration and will collaborate and work with relevant NGOs to implement them.”


Singapore NGOs go to Geneva: UN experts review Singapore’s gender equality progress

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.

  1. The training

Credit: IWRAW Asia Pacific

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).

  1. The oral statements

Image credit: Sayoni

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  1. Concluding Observations

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.

  1. 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.



CEDAW oral statement by coalition of Singapore NGOs

The following is the oral statement made by Jolene Tan, representative of the Singapore coalition of 13 NGOs, who spoke on behalf of the coalition, migrant workers’ rights groups HOME and TWC2, and Centre for Domestic Employees, to the CEDAW Committee on 23 October 2017.

Thank you Madam Chair. I am part of the women’s NGO coalition.

1. Violence against women

Sexual violence of all kinds is common and under-reported. Few employers have policies on workplace sexual harassment as they are not legally obliged to do so. Women assaulted by supervisors often choose between their livelihoods and their safety. Moreover, marital immunity applies to rape, including rape of a minor, despite statements by Singapore to the UPR in 2016. Both the public and authorities lack awareness on consent and the realities of gender-based violence. Recently, in acquitting a man of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old, the judge criticised the victim for taking several months to speak up about her assault. The domestic violence regime does not cover non-married intimate partners.

2. Migrant wives of citizens

Despite the Committee’s last Concluding Observations, these women face unclear immigration rules discriminating based on income, HIV status and other factors. No clear path to stable residence is offered, even for mothers with citizen children. They face discrimination in legal assistance, healthcare, public housing and permission to work. One pregnant woman lived on a lorry until social media pressure secured her help; many more suffer without attention.

3. Muslim family law

Muslim inheritance law creates unfair outcomes disadvantaging women. We urge that Muslims should have a choice between Muslim and civil law in distributing their estates. The State should seek to end polygamy while protecting women already in such marriages. Muslim women should not need consent of a male relative to get married.

4. Employment discrimination

Employers can discriminate based on sex, gender, marital status, sexual orientation and gender identity without legal consequence. We see discrimination based on pregnancy and motherhood, with one woman returning from maternity leave to find a letter of termination on her desk. Muslim women who wear a headscarf are barred from some jobs, including in public institutions.

5. Migrant domestic workers

They face systemic exploitation and abuse. Excluded from labour law, they are not entitled to paid public holidays, sick leave, annual leave and limits to working hours. Reports of workers being locked up, with their mobile phones confiscated, are common. Though the law calls for a weekly day off, most do not enjoy it as employers are permitted to compensate them instead.

Because the government does not allow domestic workers to switch employers freely, they are virtual slaves in their employers’ homes. If they try to assert their rights, they risk repatriation. The state should do more to educate workers about their rights and support them in asserting them.

To combat salary non-payment, the state should make electronic payments compulsory and facilitate the opening of bank accounts for workers.

The state should better regulate and enforce against recruiter malpractice – including efforts to address issues in sender countries. Workers often pay 6-8 months of wages to recruiters. The state does not act on complaints against this, despite laws placing limits on agent fees. If fees are paid for training, the state should ensure it is provided and certified.

The government forces workers who leave their employer’s homes and seek help at NGOs to report to them. The worker is compelled to report abuse and to remain to assist in lengthy investigations against her will.

An anti human trafficking law has been passed, but key indicators and definitions of trafficking are poorly-defined or non-existent. The rights of victims are limited and not enshrined in law.   

Thank you.

FAQs: CEDAW coalition report 2017

Confused about news reports about the CEDAW shadow report submitted by local NGOs? Who are these 13 NGOs? Why is 377A in the report? Here are all the facts!


  • Why do NGOs make reports to the UN CEDAW Committee? Why not try to shape domestic opinion instead?

The Singapore state is a party to CEDAW. As part of the CEDAW process, it is required to report to the UN CEDAW Committee every few years. The Committee seeks information from other sources, including NGOs, in order to shape questions and recommendations for the State. Independent reporting from NGOs is a key part of the CEDAW process which the State has chosen to engage in.

The coalition groups are also involved in public education, awareness raising and discussion within Singapore. However, just as the Government has chosen to sign CEDAW and thus engage in a conversation with UN bodies and the international community about women’s human rights, we also think it is important, as NGOs, for us to participate in this process. The international standards applying to Singapore are a matter of interest for all members of our society, including NGOs.

  • Who is involved in the coalition and how did this come about?

In 2011, a number of NGOs submitted individual reports. Afterward, many felt that the process could be improved by the submission of a joint report. Thus, in 2014, there began a consultation process involving SCWO members as well as some other groups who had previously been connected with the CEDAW process in some way. Workshops, discussions and other events took place over several years, with drafting on a range of agreed issues beginning in 2016. At an open meeting, it was agreed that an editorial committee composed of volunteers from several groups would help to coordinate the putting into text of the discussions so far. Drafts were circulated to all involved in the consultation in February, May, August and September 2017. Each time, feedback was invited, and each time an open meeting was later held to enable further discussion. Eventually, in September and October, groups made a final decision about whether they wished to be included in the final report.

  • How did you decide what to put in the report? What happened if there were disagreements?

It was discussed and agreed at an early meeting in 2016 that the editorial committee should be guided by the UN CEDAW Committee’s Concluding Observations to Singapore in 2011. It was further agreed that issues included in the individual reports submitted by participating groups in 2011, should also be included in the joint report for this round. Within these parameters, further input and recommendations were also solicited from all participating groups, although not all chose to contribute. Most requests for changes or disagreements were discussed either in the open meetings, in editorial meetings or through email to reach a consensus or compromise. Where this was not possible, the 2011 Concluding Observations and other positions of the UN CEDAW Committee (based on documents such as their General Recommendations) became the basis for final decisions.

  • I’ve heard some groups ‘withdrew support’ from the coalition. Is this true? Why did this happen?

The consultation process began with around 60 groups, but their participation in terms of replying to email, offering input or attending meetings varied according to their own interest or capacity. Some simply never offered any input or feedback at any point. Some who did not attend the meetings, waited only till late September, with the final CEDAW deadline looming, to raise any concerns. As for the final decision whether to add their names to the report, this was a matter for individual groups based on their own comfort and familiarity with both the substantive content of the report as well as the whole process of international human rights advocacy. Many have come along on a process of engagement and education but were just not ready to take on something so decisive as endorsement in the end.

  • Do you believe you are representative of society with only 13 NGOs in your coalition?

The purpose of NGO CEDAW reports is not to be representative of all of society as it stands. It is also not a bead-counting exercise to see how many NGOs participate. Rather, it is to provide information relevant to the fulfillment of CEDAW obligations within the State. CEDAW itself recognises that gender stereotypes or norms that oppose equality may be prevalent in society. However, Singapore is party to the Treaty which means that Singapore has an obligation to undertake public education and other efforts to promote greater support for gender equality.

A coalition of 13 is in fact a significant step forward from 2011, when reports only came from individual groups rather than any coalition at all. Groups new to or intimidated by international human rights advocacy processes may choose not to add on their names even if they are sympathetic and appreciative of CEDAW standards. We are hopeful that this is only the beginning of a deepening collaboration between women’s groups and other groups that support the CEDAW goals.

  • Why did you include Section 377A and LGBT rights?

LGBT rights were among the issues raised by the UN CEDAW Committee in 2011. LBT women also participated in the consultation process and offered input into how their rights have been affected by the matters raised in the report. As the joint report makes clear, although the letter of Section 377A applies to men only, the stigmatising impact of this law affects women in the LGBT community as well.

We note that the intended inclusion of LGBT rights was explicitly highlighted to participating groups in more than one meeting from 2016, and was clear from drafts circulated to all participating groups from February 2017. No objection or feedback was raised on this point until late September 2017.

  • How can you make these recommendations on Muslim family law when you are not Muslim groups?

Muslim women have been involved at all stages of preparation of the report, from input and research to drafting and submission. Groups that are not “Muslim groups” in name can and do have numerous Muslim members, beneficiaries or clients. Our recommendations are based on a combination of experience as well as the CEDAW Committee Concluding Observations of 2011. Moreover, gender equality is a matter of concern for all in Singapore, and as members of society we should take an interest in the rights and welfare of all our fellow beings, regardless of religion.

Press release: Local NGOs come together to submit joint report to the UN about gender inequalities in Singapore

In an unprecedented move, 13 local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have joined forces to submit a report to a United Nations committee about the continuing gender inequalities in Singapore.

This follows news reports last week that some women’s organisations were not supporting the coalition report to the UN CEDAW (Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) Committee.

CEDAW, adopted by the UN in 1979, defines discrimination against women and sets an agenda for nations to end these inequitable laws, policies and practices.  

The coalition of 13 NGOs submitted its report, titled ‘Many Voices, One Movement’, to the UN CEDAW Committee yesterday. This Committee, comprising international experts, monitors the progress of signatory countries to the targets of the treaty.

Singapore has been party to the Convention since October 1995. Like all signatories, it is required to submit every four years a report to the CEDAW Committee about what has been done to comply with and implement the provisions of CEDAW.

The Committee encourages NGOs to additionally submit their own reports about the situation in their countries. These NGO reports help the Committee to frame its questions when it meets the government delegations at the formal reporting sessions.

While individual Singapore NGOs have participated in previous CEDAW reporting cycles, this is the first time they have joined forces to prepare a joint report. Some of the NGOs will be sending representatives to Geneva next month.

“After over 20 years of Singapore being party to CEDAW, it is heartening that NGOs have pulled together a historic, unprecedented Coalition Report,” said Malathi Das, Chair of the Coalition and President of Zonta Club of Singapore.

“Although some consultation participants could not make the final list of endorsements, it has been a learning journey for all. We are hopeful more will join in the next cycle,” Ms Das added.  

Veteran women’s rights advocate Dr Anamah Tan, the only Singaporean to have been a member of the UN CEDAW Committee, said: “Trail blazing and moving out of one’s comfort zone is not always smooth sailing. The report is the culmination of two years of negotiating, learning and understanding the differing views even amongst us who support the report.

“We all want to see an end to all forms of discrimination against women because of our gender. That is our aim and that is the ultimate aim of CEDAW. We have made good progress.”

Dr Tan, a founding member of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations in 1980 and formerly its president, added: “I had the privilege and honour of serving on the UN CEDAW committee from 2004 to 2008, during which I read hundreds of NGO reports of many countries.  The UN Committee is aware of the constraints of each such report and appreciates the effort put in by the reporting NGOs. The Singapore coalition report will definitely be read with interest.”

Singapore submitted its Fifth Periodic Report to the Committee in October 2015. A government delegation will meet the CEDAW Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, on 25 October to discuss the report.

At these meetings, attended by NGOs, CEDAW Committee members question reporting states about progress in implementing CEDAW. Some months later, the Committee issues concluding observations and recommendations.

Following the session in Geneva, the NGO coalition looks forward to engaging the government on the issues listed in the NGO report, as well as the recommendations made by the UN CEDAW Committee.

Commenting on what the Coalition is hoping to see, Malathi Das said: “The Coalition seeks a decisive blueprint for achieving gender equality in all areas – family, employment and public life – and action on urgent issues like violence against women and migrants’ rights.”

Braema Mathi, immediate past president of Maruah, a human rights advocacy group, said: “MARUAH is very happy that diverse CSOs have come together to frame and support this Report. This is the way forward in the future. The challenge is to advocate CEDAW effectively.”

Halijah Mohamad, Vice-President of the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers (SAWL), added: “SAWL has never been involved in the preparation of previous CEDAW Shadow Reports and we were very pleased to have the opportunity to be involved in this maiden coalition exercise. We found our participation and efforts in this process a remarkably worthwhile and meaningful journey.”

For media queries, please contact us at sgcedawcoalition at gmail dot com. The full report can be found here. The list of coalition members can be found in Annex 1 to the report.