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Women may be offered immediate safe space if there is threat of violence: Shanmugam

SINGAPORE: More will be done to protect women against family violence, including offering them the option of being immediately moved to a safe space, if frontline responders assess that there is a threat of violence.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said this in Parliament on Tuesday (Apr 5) during a debate on a White Paper on women’s development.

He noted that this was one of the 16 recommendations, earlier proposed by a task force on family violence, which the Government has accepted.

Outlining a “common situation”, he gave the example of how an angry husband may threaten violence at home, causing the woman to fear for her safety.

But if the police turn up at that point, “nothing much can be done” if there has not been any violence or an imminent threat of violence.

The husband can also deny that he was going to get physical, and the woman and her children would have to stay in the same flat “in fear”, he said.

When the new recommendation is implemented, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) will respond, and assess if the situation is serious.

“If there has been violence, it may proceed as a criminal case. If there is no actual violence, but there is a significant threat of violence, the wife may be offered the option of being moved to a safe space, depending on the facts.”

It will be her choice to go to the safe space immediately, along with her children, even if there is no criminal offence, said Mr Shanmugam. “(She can) then consider her next steps, instead of facing the threat of violence.”

She may also be moved to a temporary shelter arrangement while working out longer-term interventions.

“(This) gives the parties the opportunity to cool down, provides an opportunity for reconciliation, and you really don't want every such situation to end up in the matrimonial courts,” said Mr Shanmugam.

OTHER MOVES TO PROTECT WOMEN

In addition, certain people – such as the Director-General of Social Welfare – will be empowered to apply for personal protection orders (PPO) on behalf of those at risk in some situations, he said.

He cited an example of a woman who had been abused by her son for years, but did not want to report him.

“This will be very resource-intensive, and therefore it will take time to implement. Members can see, however, what we hope to achieve.”

The changes will be the latest in a series of efforts over the years to better protect women from violence.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the Penal Code was amended in 2019 to deal with sexual crimes using technology, while marital immunity for rape was repealed. The Protection from Harassment Act was also amended to enhance the protection of victims.

Last year, the penalties for three sexual offences, including outage of modesty, were increased – and these came into force last month.

“SIGNIFICANT PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT” OF THE WHITE PAPER

Mr Shanmugam also said that ingraining gender equality in Singapore’s culture is still a “work in progress”.

But conversations leading to the White Paper, and the publication itself, have had a “significant psychological impact and moved us further along the path”, he said.

“How many will dare, in a mixed group of right-thinking people … to say, men and women should not be equal?

“It's an achievement that – regardless of whatever one may personally think – if people realise that expressing a contrary view would be against social norms, that means people understand what the norms are. That is important.

“So you must not underestimate the power of such collective norm-building. The conversations and the White Paper have helped a fair bit in this process.”

He added that though the situation in Singapore may seem like “the natural order of things”, it is not.

Citing several allegations about the mistreatment of women in Australia's parliament last year, he said this would have been “quite unthinkable” in Singapore.

He also noted that in Malaysia last year, a ministry had posted advice for wives to ensure a harmonious household – including mimicking the voice of Japanese cartoon character, Doraemon, when speaking to their husbands.

This year, that same Malaysian ministry advised husbands to strike their wives “gently” to discipline them if they did not stop “unruly” behaviour, he noted.

“(Our path) has led us to a very different place, in terms of how in Singapore we view women and what we consider acceptable to say to women about how they should behave. And the White Paper pushes us further along that road.”

ONLINE HARMS

MPs also spoke about protecting women from harm in the digital world – stressing the need to bridge a “digital safety gap” for them.

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann shared an anecdote about how a journalist was harassed after her personal details were posted online and she was falsely profiled as a sex worker.

“If left unchecked, online harms that promote exploitative and disrespectful attitudes towards women and girls may discourage women from being active online,” she said.

It may also lead them to avoid meaningful undertakings in real life, such as leadership roles, as it could raise the chances of “encountering haters who wield online harms as a weapon”.

Ms Sim added that an Alliance for Action (AfA) tackling online harms will soon roll out more initiatives to build a “more holistic system” of support – including a pilot to provide counselling intervention for victims.

The call for effective solutions to online harms was echoed by Ms Rahayu Mazam, Parliamentary Secretary for Health, and Communications and Information.

She cited a study commissioned by the AfA in January 2022, which found that 43 per cent of respondents considered “stricter enforcement of relevant laws” to be the most effective solution to reduce gender-based online harms, she said. 

“In addition, respondents (in the study) felt that companies and platforms have the most room for improvement in tackling the issue.”

In line with this desire, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) recently announced the introduction of “codes of practice” to improve online safety, she said.

This includes minimising exposure to harmful content, empowering users to report and prevent the further spread of harmful content, and ensuring online platforms remain accountable for their measures and processes to keep users safe. 

“As MCI develops these Codes of Practice, we will consult community stakeholders, including AfA members, to ensure efforts to nurture a safe online environment are tailored to meet the needs of Singaporeans.”

Source: CNA/cl(ac)

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