During the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries put in place lockdown measures as safety precautions to curb the spread of the virus. Staying at home, for most, meant being safe from a possibly fatal affliction. However, for victims of domestic violence, this was not necessarily the case.
Since the beginning of April, when circuit breaker measures were implemented in Singapore, there has been a spike in calls and reports related to domestic violence. The Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) adult and child protective services saw a 14 per cent increase in enquiries related to domestic conflicts and violence in the first two weeks of circuit breaker. Meanwhile, of the 6,600 calls received by MSF’s National Care Hotline in its first three weeks, 6 per cent were related to family and marital disputes and 4 per cent were related to family violence. Similarly, the Singapore Police Force reported an increase of 22 percent of reports related to family violence since the beginning of the circuit breaker period.
It should be stressed that these statistics only reflect reported cases. The true extent of domestic violence is surely even higher – a study conducted by Ipsos in 2019 found that 3 in 10 Singaporeans say they or someone close to them have experienced domestic abuse, indicating a higher prevalence rate of domestic violence than what is captured on official records. Findings from the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) conducted in Singapore found that less than one-quarter of victims reported incidences of domestic violence to the police. This is particularly so if the violence is committed by a husband or an intimate partner as they did not want their partner arrested.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IS A GENDERED PROBLEM
Family violence is violent and/or threatening behaviour that occurs in current or former family, domestic or intimate relationships. It encompasses physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional and psychological abuse, economic control, social isolation and any other behaviour that may cause a person to live in fear. It can often include a pattern of controlling or coercive behaviour. Abusers use overt behaviours such as physical and sexual violence to dominate and instil fear over their partners. They also use more subtle tactics such as intimidation, emotional and economic abuse, isolation, and so on, to control their partner’s behaviour and maintain power over them so that the abusers can get what they want.
Although anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, women are much more likely to be victims of violence perpetrated by males. The IVAWS found that nearly 1 in 10 women in Singapore experienced physical violence by a male perpetrator.
Studies have shown that there is a correlation between men’s adherence to sexist, patriarchal, and/or sexually hostile attitudes and the use of violence against women. These attitudes include that men should be dominant in households and intimate relationships, and that men have the right to enforce their dominance. Unfortunately, such ideas have a long history in many cultures and have been enshrined in legal systems and social norms. The idea that authority belongs to men while women must be submissive provides a cultural cover for violence against women.
In Singapore, the traditional “head of household” concept still exists in policy and decision-making. It reflects a hierarchical view of the family whereby a male breadwinner has higher status and greater authority than a female caregiver, and affects decision-making by public agencies in areas such as housing. This concept is also present in Malay/Muslim community discourse about domestic violence. Statements such as, “Sebagai suami, maka gunakanlah kuasa kita dengan sebaik- baiknya dan janganlah melampaui batas” rely on the husband’s benevolence and require women to be dependent on men. By not addressing the unequal power relationships between husband and wife, women are still vulnerable to abuse at the hands of a less benevolent husband.
Patriarchal interpretations of religion can also be used to justify violence against women. Surah an-Nisa’, verse 34 has been grossly misinterpreted to justify wife-beating. Although the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) has rejected any notion that Islam condones domestic violence, without sustained dialogue and discussion on the concept of “head of household” and its implications on domestic violence within the community, the verse is still used as a convenient divine declaration to permit violence against women.
CIRCUIT BREAKER AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
The COVID-19 pandemic did not create domestic violence, but it did create the perfect environment for domestic violence to occur. One hallmark of society’s response to COVID-19 is social distancing – and a primary way that abusers exert power and control is by isolating their victims. This includes controlling what victims do, where they go, who they meet and talk to. Women are thus prevented from connecting with their support network of friends and co-workers; they may also lack sufficient privacy from their abuser to call helplines and access other formal services. Now that social distancing measures have trapped women with their abusers at home, such situations are more likely to happen. Those who were already in abusive situations may find themselves facing more extreme violence with no way of escape.
As the pandemic has caused disruption and uncertainty in our lives, abusers may attempt to seek a sense of control in their lives by taking it out on those around them. A research study on intimate partner violence and the global financial crisis in the US linked unemployment and economic hardship to abusive behaviour in households. Another study also found that when women are unemployed or at risk of unemployment, it makes it harder for them to escape abusive situations due to their economic dependency on their spouses.
IMPACT ON MARGINALISED WOMEN
Some women are even more vulnerable to violence than others due to the intersections between gender, citizenship status, sexuality and work status.
Data from the Association of Women for Action and Research’s (AWARE) Helpline suggests higher rates of family violence experienced by migrant wives, as compared to Singaporean women. From 2016 to 2018, 13 per cent of Singaporean women who called the Helpline experienced family violence, while 27.5 per cent of migrant wives callers experienced the same. Callers reported experiencing spousal violence. Some citizen spouses also used the threat of cancelling visas/visit passes as a way of inflicting psychological abuse and preventing their non-resident wives from seeking help. Fear of losing their right to remain in the country and be with their children force these women to compromise their own safety and stay in abusive marriages.
A recent survey conducted by Brave Spaces and Sayoni, on the impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQ+ persons in Singapore, found that 1 in 5 respondents currently live in family environments that are hostile towards their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Under circuit breaker measures, LGBTQ+ persons are trapped in homes with unaccepting families, increasing their risk of domestic violence by family members who may resort to violence and abuse to “correct” or punish them for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Moreover, there are too few social services catered for the community, and these tend to be run by under-resourced and under-funded NGOs.
Since the implementation of circuit breaker measures, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) has reported a 25 per cent increase in calls to their helpline from domestic workers. Some employers restrict domestic workers from using their mobile phones during work hours, further isolating them and reducing their communication access. Domestic workers are also subject to increased surveillance by their employers and some may not be able to leave the house to seek help. Their dependence on employers for employment and income may lead to some domestic workers having no choice but to tolerate abusive or exploitative conditions in order to provide for families back home.
CREATING A NEW NORMAL
In 2019, there was a full repeal of marital immunity for rape in the Penal Code, indicating a positive step towards reducing domestic violence. However, it is important to realise that AWARE and other organisations have been advocating for the repeal of marital rape immunity for the past three decades. It took years of continuous, community-driven public advocacy before married women were finally given the same protection as unmarried women. These changes have come far too slowly — and women have to bear the consequences.
The pandemic has brought about a major shift in everyone’s lives. The world we knew previously is gone. As a community, the men in our midst cannot let their sisters, mothers, colleagues, friends and loved ones carry the burden of changing systemic sexism and structural discrimination on our own. Domestic violence cannot be seen as a women’s issue when the perpetrators are overwhelmingly male. Male allies need to stop giving lip service to fighting domestic violence. Under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Singapore ratified in 1995, the state is obligated to eliminate discrimination against women and achieve substantive equality. Men need to have the courage to hold other men accountable for their actions. Men in leadership and positions of influence in state bodies, institutions, religious organisations, companies, charities and so on need to step up and take concrete efforts towards ensuring gender equality in their contexts.
Men need to start reflecting on their unconscious bias, their actions and their silences and ask themselves – how has their inability to hold other men accountable for acts of inequality allowed domestic violence to perpetuate? ⬛
If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence, you can reach out to the following helplines:
AWARE’s Women’s Helpline
1800 777 5555
Monday to Friday, 10am to 6pm
National Care Hotline
1800 202 6868
Brave Helpline for LGBTQ+ persons
Monday to Friday, 10am to 6pm
HOME Helpline for domestic workers
1800 797 7977 or 9787 3122
1 CNA. COVID-19: MSF KEEPING ‘CLOSE WATCH’ ON DOMESTIC ABUSE CASES AS MORE REACH OUT FOR HELP OVER CIRCUIT BREAKER PERIOD. 2020, APRIL 23. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.CHANNELNEWSASIA.COM/NEWS/SINGAPORE/COVID-19-MSF-DOMESTIC-ABUSE-VIOLENCE-CASES-CIRCUIT-BREAKER-12671330
2 GOH, YH. OVER 6,600 CALLS MADE TO NATIONAL CARE HOTLINE. THE STRAITS TIMES. 2020, APRIL 30. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/SINGAPORE/HEALTH/OVER-6600-CALLS-MADE-TO-NATIONAL-CARE-HOTLINE
3 IAU, J. CORONAVIRUS: MORE CASES OF FAMILY VIOLENCE DURING CIRCUIT BREAKER; POLICE TO PROACTIVELY HELP VICTIMS. THE STRAITS TIMES. 2020, MAY 14. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/SINGAPORE/COURTS-CRIME/CORONAVIRUS-MORE-CASES-OF-FAMILY-VIOLENCE-DURING-CIRCUIT-BREAKER-POLICE-TO
4 IPSOS. PRESS RELEASE: 3 IN 10 SINGAPOREANS SAY THEY OR SOMEONE CLOSE TO THEM HAVE EXPERIENCED DOMESTIC ABUSE. 2019, DECEMBER 10. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.IPSOS.COM/SITES/DEFAULT/FILES/CT/NEWS/DOCUMENTS/2019-12/PRESS_RELEASE_PERCEPTIONS_OF_DOMESTIC_ABUSE_IN_SINGAPORE_IPSOS_UWS_6_DECEMBER_2019.PDF
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6 IBID, PP 53.
7 THE DULUTH MODEL. POWER AND CONTROL WHEEL – UNDERSTANDING THE POWER AND CONTROL WHEEL. 2016, MAY 2. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://YOUTU.BE/5ORADC6YSIY
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11 IBID. PP 128.
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14 SUNDAY, BF. PSYCHOMETRIC PROPERTIES OF BELIEFS ABOUT RELATIONSHIP VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND GENDER STEREOTYPES SCALE. 2016. PP 246.
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17 TRANSLATION: “AS HUSBANDS, USE OUR POWER WISELY AND DO NOT OVERSTEP THE BOUNDARIES.”
18 BERITA HARIAN. CARA URUS ISTERI DEGIL. 2017, OCTOBER 13.
19 BERITA HARIAN. PENOLONG PENGARAH PEJABAT MUFTI PERJELAS SOAL SUAMI KASARI ISTERI. 2017, OCTOBER 16.
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21 SCHNEIDER D, HARKNETT K, AND MCLANAHAN S. INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE IN THE GREAT RECESSION. DEMOGRAPHY. 2016. PP 471-505. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.NCBI.NLM.NIH.GOV/PMC/ARTICLES/PMC4860387/
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23 AWARE SINGAPORE. MIGRANT WIVES IN DISTRESS. JUNE 2020. PP 6. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://D2T1LSPZRJTIF2.CLOUDFRONT.NET/WP-CONTENT/UPLOADS/AWARE-REPORT-1-JUNE-2020-MIGRANT-WIVES-IN-DISTRESS.PDF
25 SAYONI. 2020, JUNE 1. HTTPS://WWW.FACEBOOK.COM/FBSAYONI/POSTS/10158568092643169 [FACEBOOK UPDATE]
27 HUMANITARIAN ORGANIZATION FOR MIGRATION ECONOMICS. COVID-19 AND IMPACT OF CIRCUIT BREAKER MEASURES ON DOMESTIC WORKERS. 2020, MAY 15. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.HOME.ORG.SG/STATEMENTS/2020/5/15/COVID-19-AND-IMPACT-OF-CIRCUIT-BREAKER-MEASURES-ON-DOMESTIC-WORKERS
30 RACHEL AY. IMMUNITY FOR MARITAL RAPE BEING REVIEWED. THE STRAITS TIMES. 2017, APRIL 5. AVAILABLE AT: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/immunity-for-marital-rape-being-reviewed
Filzah Sumartono is a Projects Manager at Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). She is also an advocate for an end to the practice of sunat perempuan (female circumcision) in Singapore.