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Tue, Nov 24, 2009
The Straits Times
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S'pore must do more on domestic violence

I AM encouraged to learn how female victims of violence and their children have received better protection from 'high-risk' abusers because of recent initiatives to fight domestic violence.

Identifying the 'high-risk' people, planning a strategy to protect second-time victims, and seeking help from agencies such as the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) Child Protection Service, the police and prisons are elements of this critical 'safety net' to help victims, and these efforts should be applauded.

In Singapore, concerted efforts to deal with domestic violence started in the 1980s. The groundwork for reform through campaigns was spurred by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), which culminated in the Family Violence Bill.

Regrettably, the Bill was defeated in Parliament, but there were some positive results. In March 1995, a specialist Family Court was established.

An infrastructure was also set up to ensure a coordinated and integrated approach to tackling the problem. Some provisions of the Family Violence Bill were incorporated into the amended Women's Charter 1996.

But the amended charter has its shortfalls. While it protects spouse, former spouse, child, stepchild, adopted child, parents, parents-in-law and any other relative or incapacitated individual who is regarded by the court as a member of the family, couples who live together are excluded.

If the Family Violence Bill was in place, courts would have protected even de facto or common law 'marriages' and not ignore them altogether.

The Women's Charter has another defect. Only the victim can apply for a protection order.

In reality, the victim often believes she cannot help herself and, as a result, fails to take any action to end the abusive relationship.

An advantage of the Family Violence Bill would have been that anyone who had reason to believe that family violence (including spousal violence) was being committed could apply for a protection order for the victim.

The Women's Charter is flawed in another way. The amended charter makes it mandatory not only for the abuser but also the victim to undergo counselling.

In contrast, the Family Violence Bill would have reserved mandatory counselling for the abuser only.

Clearly, family violence should be fought on many fronts, as is currently done. But legal reform is also critical to eradicate this social problem.

The legal reforms in place to fight family violence are a step forward, but more can be done to ensure gender egalitarianism.

Dr Theresa Devasahayam
Coordinator, Gender Studies Programme
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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