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Singapore’s joint UN report on gender delayed as coalition of NGOs disagree on local issues for reform

Calls to repeal penal code 377A and change marriage requirements for Muslim women caused rifts within SCWO as well as the media conference cancellation.

SCWO members at the Istana with President Halimah Yacob. PHOTO: FACEBOOK

A media conference to share details of a draft joint report on gender discrimination in Singapore was abruptly cancelled on 29 September, apparently due to disagreements within the coalition of the roughly 60 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) contributing to it.

The Straits Times reported that the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), the People’s Association’s Women’s Integration Network and the NTUC Women and Family Unit chose not to endorse the report because of divisive issues raised, as well as irrelevance to their organisational interests.

“(PPIS) remains in an unenviable position of having to balance and reflect the varied voices of Muslim women in Singapore. Endorsing the report in its entirety for now is not to our interest.”

– Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS) on the draft report

This is the first time such a report has been drafted for presentation to a United Nations (UN) committee. It appears however that the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) spans issues that factions within the coalition were not prepared for nor interesting in supporting.

The editorial committee’s draft as of 5 September focused on a number of discrimination-related issues; there are calls to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code which makes sexual intercourse between men illegal, remove the requirement of a guardian or wali for Muslim women to marry, and remove the justification of higher salaries for men to purportedly make up for their two years of mandatory national service.

Some of these would require widespread changes for the relevant ministries, such as for guidelines on salary benchmarking, as well as amendments to Singapore’s laws. UN member states which accept CEDAW are legally bound to introduce legislation and appropriate measures to effect the obligations it accedes to. Reporting is also required at least every four years as part of the treaty.

Representatives contributing to the draft included women’s rights group Aware, the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers (SAWL), human rights group Maruah, PPIS and Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO). Aware’s head of advocacy and research Jolene Tan said that the report has been changed to reflect feedback, after SCWO said that most of its member organisations did not accept the report as it was currently.

“…we realised at this stage that we did not have the overwhelming support that we decided we needed.”

– SCWO on why the media conference was cancelled

SCWO additionally indicated that some groups might have been more involved than others, with a lack of interest among the coalition in the UN Convention’s purpose for the report. There also appeared to be miscommunication when sharing drafts, as well as complaints from organisations either unaware of or unincluded on developments.

SCWO is the national co-ordinating body for women’s organisations in Singapore, and is an Organisation in Special Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) since 2014, as well as Organisation in Consultative Relationship with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) since 2016.

Aware recently expressed disappointment over the state of affairs surrounding the appointment of Halimah Yacob as Singapore’s first female president, and has made known its goal to develop a deeper understanding of syariah law to further support Muslim women.

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