22 years of listening to women in need — Sheena Kanwar
MARCH 8 — “Listen, listen and then listen some more.” That is what AWARE’s team of 50 helpliners are committed to doing — listening to women talk about the struggles they face as they try to claim a rightful place in their personal and professional lives.
This International Women’s Day, we call upon society to give women the space and support they need to take charge of their lives.
The AWARE helpline turns 22 this year, but we do not know whether to celebrate this landmark in the history of our association and the women’s movement in Singapore — or to be concerned about the reality that confronts us: That a dedicated helpline for women continues to be in demand, more so than ever before.
In the last 20 years, the country has made great economic strides. Yet, discrimination, disempowerment and violence against women persist. While there are statistics about gender disparities, we who listen on the phone learn about them as the subjective experiences of women who call for help.
Women in Singapore still face crimes of violence at home, at the workplace, in public spaces; perpetrated by trusted family members, partners or strangers. They risk losing their jobs when they become mothers. They are subjected to growing stress as they take on demanding work and continue to be solely responsible for caregiving at home. Their status in their families and their decision-making power continue to be hampered by unequal gender roles.
These are some of the issues we hear about on AWARE’s helpline. Sometimes, it is the first time that the caller has decided to talk to someone about her problem, believing the helpline would be a safe space to do so. At other times, the caller has tried several avenues already and when nothing has worked, she calls us, hoping to find a more understanding ear.
Last year, out of the 3,184 calls we received, 27 per cent were seeking legal advice, predominantly about divorce and ancillary matters; 15 per cent were seeking emotional support for marital problems, and 12 per cent were seeking help with abusive relationships.
Calls related to divorce have persisted as the largest category, reflective of the increase in divorce rates. These callers usually face challenges in securing custody of children, maintenance or rights to the matrimonial assets in a difficult divorce process.
Often, the caller has found out about her husband’s extramarital affair and decided to divorce him; or she has suffered years of abuse and finally decided to end the marriage. In some cases, the caller’s spouse unexpectedly declares that he will be filing for divorce. The women in these situations feel lost and intimidated by the long and taxing legal battle that awaits.
Globally, increasing divorce rates are a reality, more so in the developed economies. But, with increasing education and awareness levels among women, why do they continue to face vulnerability and fear when it comes to legal and financial matters? Why do they still encounter difficulties in securing minimum maintenance and share to the matrimonial homes?
In worst-case scenarios, some are not even able to stay in the country. A significant percentage of foreign wives who call in face the possibility of getting their Dependant Passes cancelled and being forced to leave their Singaporean children behind with their Singaporean husbands.
SOMEONE THEY KNEW
Another category of callers that has seen an increase is the survivors of sexual assault. Following an increase in such calls in 2009 and 2010, AWARE launched a specialised Sexual Assault Befriender Service in November 2011.
Our data shows that most sexual assault is committed not by strangers, but by boyfriends, partners, friends, dates or colleagues.
The age range of callers is between 16 and 30 years, provoking us to question if young people are developing healthy, respectful relationships in an era where an active sex life before marriage is becoming a norm.
Most sexual assault survivors who call us do not make police reports as they are too scared of the legal processes or too ashamed to let anyone know, or both.
Most often, the helpline is the first time they have spoken about their experiences, sometimes years after these have taken place.
After 22 years, many women still need safe spaces, like our helpline, that ensure their physical and emotional protection while encouraging their self-determination, choices and voices. That is saying something about our society. — Today
* Sheena Kanwar is a support services manager at the Association of Women for Action and Research. AWARE’s helpline is the first and still the only helpline in Singapore run by women, for women only.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.