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Government to study views on women’s issues, present 'concrete proposals' in White Paper in early 2022: PM Lee

SINGAPORE: The Government will study the views it has received on issues concerning women and will develop “concrete proposals” to be presented in a White Paper early next year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday (Sep 18).

He was speaking at the closing session of the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development. The initiative was launched in September last year and involved a series of engagements between the public and private sectors, as well as non-governmental organisations.

The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) and their member organisations were involved in the engagements. Other groups that were involved include the National Trades Union Congress Women and Family Unit and the People’s Association Women’s Integration Network Council.

More than 5,700 people, both men and women, participated in about 160 conversations, with many more giving their feedback online, said Mr Lee on Saturday. Several organisations, including the PAP Women’s Wing, Young PAP and SCWO, also submitted their recommendations.

"The strong response despite the pandemic shows that these issues matter to Singaporeans," he said.

The Government will work with such groups and conversation participants to implement the proposals and address the issues together, he said.

“It is a long-term effort, but a vital one,” he said.

WORKPLACE OPPORTUNITIES

In his speech, Mr Lee said that three “priority areas” repeatedly arose from the conversations - workplace opportunities, caregiver support and protection for women.

Women should have “real choices between work and family commitments”, he said.

He said that women’s responsibilities at home can spill over to affect their career progression. Some women need more flexibility at work, or are forced to find “workarounds” to fulfil their familial responsibilities, he noted.

“Unfortunately, this can feed perceptions that women are less committed to their careers,” he said.

Mr Lee added that some employers are still reluctant to hire, promote, or groom female employees, particularly mothers.

While sometimes these arise from misunderstandings that can be corrected, in other cases they are serious enough to constitute workplace discrimination, Mr Lee said.

He described the situation as “unjust” as Singapore women are “equally capable” as the men.

“They should have equal opportunities to prove themselves and reach their fullest potential. We must not let our prejudices become obstacles to women’s progress,” he said.

He said that the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices being formalised into law will be a “major move” to level the playing field for female employees. He also spoke about finding solutions for “practical problems” faced by working women, to make things easier for both them and their employers.

He gave examples of improving childcare arrangements and employers offering mothers more flexible work arrangements which will encourage them not to leave their jobs.

CAREGIVER SUPPORT

Mr Lee said that one of the hindrances to women’s work and careers is that they often have additional caregiving responsibilities.

One direct avenue to better support caregivers, whether women or men, is to provide them more financial assistance, Mr Lee said.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) is studying how it can enhance the Home Caregiving Grant scheme, to provide more help for targeted groups, he said.

“Caregivers have to make many significant sacrifices. Their career progression is affected. Caregiving expenses can be substantial. The caregiver finds it harder to build up her own retirement savings,” he said.

This can leave caregivers, especially full-time ones, “very vulnerable”, he said.

Many participants in the conversations felt strongly that this was unfair, he said, agreeing that caregivers deserve more support.

Mr Lee, however, also noted that no amount of money will fully compensate for the sacrifices that caregiving demands. He noted that in families, women tend to shoulder more of the caregiving burden than men, whether caring for children or elderly parents.

He said that another important issue is the well-being of caregivers themselves. During the conversations, caregivers shared that they often had no personal time, and did not know where and how to seek help, with many of them ending up exhausted and burnt out.

Mr Lee said that MOH is studying how it can expand the options for respite care to meet the varied needs of caregivers.

FAMILY VIOLENCE

Mr Lee also spoke about protection for women. While Singapore is one of the safest cities in the world, the physical safety and sense of security cannot be taken for granted, he said.

“We must keep up our efforts to maintain high standards of law and order in Singapore. At the same time, we must do our utmost to protect women and girls from being harassed or harmed,” he said.

He noted that recently, Parliament increased the maximum punishments for some sexual offences.

Singapore must cultivate an environment where “people respond with empathy and support when something bad happens”, he said, adding that victims must be able to seek help easily, and without suffering additional distress.

“More importantly, victims must not have cause to fear that they themselves will be blamed or shamed for what has happened to them, and therefore suffer in silence,” he said.

Family violence is not as rare as it should be, he said, with the situation having worsened with the pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Taskforce on Family Violence will be publishing a report that will include recommendations such as improving immediate support for victims, enhancing protection for them, preventing violence from recurring and raising awareness of early warning signs, he said.

“I look forward to receiving their report, and to implementing effective measures to combat this problem,” he said.

THREATS FROM ONLINE

Another threat to the safety of this generation of girls and women comes from online, Mr Lee said.

“With social media, females young and old are exposed and vulnerable to harassment, bullying, grooming, or unwelcome attention,” he said.

He noted that many victims suffer psychological distress, or are even driven to self-harm.

Mr Lee said that Singapore must ensure that the online space remains safe, especially for girls and women.

The most "fundamental" solution to the problem of violence against women is to inculcate the right values, so that men and women respect each other’s boundaries, and know that it is wrong and forbidden to take advantage of women, mistreat them, or attack them physically or sexually, he said.

Parents must educate their children about healthy boundaries and respect and in schools, students must learn the importance of respecting one another, and how to protect themselves both in real life and online, Mr Lee said.

Institutions of higher learning should be places where young men and women can feel safe, Mr Lee added.

Everyone can do their part in their daily lives, Mr Lee said. He urged people to speak out against disrespect for women, and objectification of women and refuse to take part in “locker room” talk.

Mr Lee said that one of the proposals by the SCWO, to dedicate a suitable public space to the women of Singapore, was an "excellent" one. Agencies have identified one promising possibility - to create a garden at Dhoby Ghaut Green for this purpose, he said.

“It will honour and celebrate the pioneering spirit and the contributions of Singapore women. It will recognise the central role that women have played in our society and nation,” Mr Lee said.

The conversations are an “important exercise” to imagine the kind of society Singapore wants for its children and grandchildren - where those who need help are cared for and supported, where women and men stand as equals, where every citizen is empowered to fulfil their aspirations and dreams, Mr Lee said.

“Let us work towards our vision of a fairer, more inclusive society, where our daughters and sons can thrive in a better age,” he said.

Source: CNA/ja

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