Wednesday, 30 March 2022

White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development proposes 25 action plans to be implemented over 10 years

Egg freezing, more flexi-work among policy changes in White Paper on Singapore women
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2022

A 10-year road map to nudge society further along the road to equality between men and women will see greater support for flexible work arrangements, more help for caregivers and swifter intervention in cases of violence.

In a symbolic move, more women will also be allowed to freeze their eggs.

The long-anticipated White Paper on Singapore Women's Development, submitted to Parliament on Monday (March 28), comes after more than a year of discussions aimed at ensuring a fair and inclusive society where all citizens can realise their full potential.

It describes the barriers and challenges that still hold women back, from glass ceilings in the workplace to caregiving responsibilities at home and violence and harm online, and promises a whole-of-government effort to address them.

It also calls on Singaporeans to be conscious of gender stereotyping in their everyday actions and to try to overcome them.

Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo said: "(The White Paper) sensitises and raises the awareness that women still need our support in many ways.

"And it is very much up to each one of us in our respective roles to try and give the women in our lives the support that they need in order to fulfil their aspirations."

While policy and legislative changes over the years have removed many of the overt obstacles in the way of women's development, further success can only be had if society as a whole works to shift mindsets, said the White Paper.

A case in point is the action plan on elective egg-freezing, which Mrs Teo noted society was previously not ready to address.

From next year, women between 21 and 35 years of age, regardless of their marital status, will be allowed to freeze their eggs, reversing the longstanding policy to allow only women who have medical issues that may affect their fertility to do so.

However, only legally married couples can use their frozen eggs to try for a baby through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). This is in line with existing IVF rules and the idea of “upholding parenthood within marriage”.

"When the idea first came up in our ground engagements, it caused some discomfort. There were worries in certain quarters that making elective egg freezing available would send the wrong signal about marriage and parenthood, that they need not be prioritised and can always be postponed," said Mrs Teo.

She added that over time, engagement efforts bore fruit and mindsets changed, and "most people came to a better understanding of the motivations of women who would take up the option".

The 115-page White Paper sets out five main areas of focus: equal opportunities in the workplace; recognition and support for caregivers; protection against violence and harm; other support measures for women, including single mothers and divorcees; and mindset shifts.

They were distilled from a year-long series of conversations to canvass views, led by Minister of State for Social and Family Development and Education Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth and Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling and Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Communications and Information Rahayu Mahzam.

Under these focus areas sit 25 action plans - some of which had been announced previously after the White Paper was first broached in September 2020 - ranging from the concrete to the symbolic.

There will be new anti-workplace discrimination laws to weed out a minority of errant employers with unfair practices in hiring, promotion, and retrenchment, among other things. It will protect the confidentiality of women who come forward and protect them from retaliation.

With Covid-19 showing that flexible work arrangements can work, a new set of tripartite guidelines will be introduced by 2024 to set out best practices for flexible work arrangements, so as to entrench these practices.

Meanwhile, since women are four times as likely as men to take on housework and caregiving duties, and women in dual-income households are five times as likely as men to do so, there will be more support for caregivers in the form of higher grants under the Home Caregiving Grant scheme.

To address the issue of harassment towards women, a safe sport code will also be introduced, among other things, to define misconduct in the sporting environment so that athletes can take a stand against bad behavior.

A mid-point review of these measures is planned in 2027.

"Underlying... each of the action plans are the commitments we make to one another: that everyone gets a fair chance at success, can find a place for herself/himself in this nation, and that we take care of the vulnerable among us," said the document.

In setting out the issues to be addressed, the White Paper stressed that women in Singapore have made remarkable progress over the past six decades.

This was possible because from the very start, the Government regarded Singapore women as "the equal half of our society", despite the patriarchal norms that existed during that time, the paper said.

Since the early years of nation-building, women have played a crucial role in society, such as when they voted in full force during the 1959 Legislative Assembly election and sent in five women into the legislature, added the paper.

Keeping its electoral promise to uplift women, the People's Action Party government passed the landmark Women's Charter in 1961, which institutionalised the equal standing of men and women in marriage and ensured the welfare and protection of women in Singapore.

Highlighting these developments, the White Paper said: "We have been working hard to change societal norms about the relationship between men and women, from one based primarily on patriarchal values to one based more on respect and partnership. This remains a conscious and ongoing effort, even as we have seen some positive mindset shifts over the years."

Despite the efforts over the years, some entrenched gender stereotypes remain, such as the notion that women are the primary caregivers and men are the main breadwinners, and that certain jobs should be performed by women and others by men.

Such mindsets need to change for the action plans to be effective and for Singapore to make the next bound of progress in women's development, said the White Paper.

The paper suggests that education is the way to achieve this, starting from teaching pre-schoolers about body safety awareness, to providing compulsory modules on respect and appropriate behaviour to students in institutes of higher learning.

In all this, men have a role to play, said the White Paper.

In the 160 conversations held, involving nearly 6,000 Singaporeans, one-fifth of participants were men.

Some noted that men can foster mindset shifts in other men and demonstrate practical support for women, such as by taking on a more active role at home and championing more equal opportunities for women at work.

The White Paper noted that men also benefit when gender stereotypes are addressed.

"Men may be equally constrained by societal expectations of how men should behave or perform at home or at work. By recognising everyone's individuality and worth, more men and women can be empowered to pursue and realise their aspirations," said the paper.

"Both women and men should have real choices to pursue different aspirations at various stages of life, without feeling like they must adhere to gender stereotypes or 'have it all' to be fulfilled."

Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli, in a Facebook post on Monday, said Singapore’s vision for a more inclusive society cannot be achieved just by legislation and policies. He urged men to play their part.

“These mean speaking out and standing up against inappropriate behaviour towards women, sharing domestic duties at home, and encouraging our children to pursue careers based on their interests and strengths and not be constrained by gender stereotypes,” he added.

Meanwhile, President Halimah Yacob cheered the action plans on caregiving and flexible work arrangements.

“Women must feel that their success in the workplace is because of - not despite - the norms and institutions in our society,” she said in a Facebook post.

Ultimately, it will take a "whole of society" effort to achieve gender equality, said the White Paper, calling on civil society, private organisations and citizens to work with the Government."Singapore can achieve much more with men and women standing as equal partners and contributors to society," it added.

25 action plans from the White Paper on Singapore Women's Development
By Goh Yan Han, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2022

From urging more flexible work arrangements to greater protection for victims of domestic violence, the White Paper on Singapore Women's Development unveiled on Monday (March 28) outlines the Government's plans to improve the lives of women here.

It took in feedback from the ground to enhance respite care options for caregivers - of which the bulk are women - as well as to allow elective egg freezing.

Here are the 25 action plans laid out in the report.

Area 1: Equal opportunities in the workplace

1. New laws to ensure fair employment practices, plus ensuring those who come forward to report issues have their identities protected and are not retaliated against.

2. New Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangements by 2024, to require employers to consider employees' flexiwork requests fairly and properly.

3. Career mentorship, networking opportunities and training programmes for women at work and re-entering the workforce.

4. Encouraging greater utilisation of parental leave.

5. Revised Singapore Exchange Listing Rules and Practice Guidance to the Code of Corporate Governance to support greater board diversity, including gender diversity.

6. Council for Board Diversity will lead efforts to increase women's representation on boards.

Area 2: Recognition and support for caregivers

7. Respite care options to be enhanced; Household Services Scheme will be expanded to include basic child- and elder-minding services.

8. Home Caregiving Grant will be increased from $200 a month to up to $400 a month.

9. Greater access to affordable and quality pre-schools; a child and maternal health well-being strategy will be developed.

10. Awareness of caregiver support initiatives will be ramped up, with a push for community-based peer support networks.

11. More support for caregivers of persons with disabilities and children with developmental needs.

Area 3: Protection against violence and harm

12. Penalties for three sexual offences have been raised, and the Attorney-General's Chambers will generally object to rehabilitative sentences for adult offenders who commit sexual and hurt offences.

13. Greater protection for victim-survivors of family violence, including a helpline with expanded capacity and multiple modes of reporting, such as a mobile app.

14. More awareness and accessibility of resources for victims of online harms.

15. Strengthened support and awareness of resources on workplace harassment.

16. New national framework to promote safe sport.

17. Promote values of respect and safety through education - from pre-schools to institutes of higher learning.

Area 4: Other support measures for women

18. Enhanced support for single parents.

19. Greater support for divorcing or divorced women, including the option of divorce by mutual agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, as well as better enforcement of maintenance orders.

20. More support for low-income families with children, such as piloting a child-minding service out of usual childcare centre operating hours.

21. Elective egg freezing to be allowed in 2023 for women aged 21 to 35 years, but only legally married couples can use this for procreation.

Area 5: Mindset shifts

22. Women's Charter has been updated to better reflect women's equal status to men in marriage.

23. Gender stereotypes about careers will be addressed through education; Character and Citizenship Education curriculum in schools will address equity of familial roles.

24. Develop gender-responsive standards under the Singapore Standardisation Programme.

25. A public garden will be dedicated to honouring and celebrating the pioneering spirit of Singapore women.

*  Parliament backs White Paper to improve equality, opportunities for Singapore women after 9.5-hour debate
By Goh Yan Han, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Apr 2022

A 10-year road map to ensure all Singapore women have greater access to opportunities, and more equal partnerships with men, was endorsed by Parliament on Tuesday (April 5), with 40 MPs speaking on the topic.

The motion on the White Paper on Singapore Women's Development, presented to Parliament on March 28, was passed unanimously by all MPs present.

Opening the 9½-hour debate, Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo acknowledged that while women here have made much progress, the country must not shy away from dealing with the various daily challenges they face - from sexual predators to social expectations.

MPs from both sides of the House spoke on promoting flexible work arrangements, enhancing support for parents and caregivers, and changing mindsets - three key pillars of the White Paper - among others.

Some called for an accelerated timeline to entrench flexible work arrangements as a workplace norm, such as Mr Melvin Yong (Radin Mas) who said: "We should strike when the iron is hot... and roll out the guidelines when many employers are still fresh from having the majority of their workforce telecommuting."

The 115-page White Paper, which drew on views from some 6,000 participants over a year, had proposed that by 2024, employers must consider staff requests for flexible work arrangements fairly and properly, under a new set of guidelines.

Other MPs also highlighted the importance of the dos and don'ts of flexiwork to protect privacy and family time at home.

Recognition of the disproportionate burden that female caregivers bear was also a common thread in MPs' speeches.

Ms Rachel Ong (West Coast GRC), who focused on single women caregivers, suggested family care leave be made mandatory instead of just encouraging employers to provide for it.

Workers' Party (WP) MPs Jamus Lim and Louis Chua (both Sengkang GRC) pushed for more parental leave so that fathers can also spend more time with their children and take on more of the care work.

They put forward WP's proposal of a shared parental leave scheme that entitles parents to 24 weeks of shared government-paid leave with a minimum of four weeks to be granted to the father and 12 weeks to the mother.

The current government policy is 16 weeks of maternity leave, of which fathers can apply to share up to four weeks, and two weeks of paternity leave.

Associate Professor Lim said: "By imposing a maximum that the father can take, the law as currently construed embeds, if you will, an implicit assumption that the father is in fact the primary breadwinner."

More protection for women who face various types of harm - such as online, physical or sexual - was also called for.

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann spoke on the need to close the digital safety gap so that women and girls can feel as safe and confident online as they do in real life.

Ms Sim, who co-chairs the Sunlight Alliance for Action that looks to address online harms targeted mainly at women and girls, said there will be a workshop to equip young people to support peers who may be experiencing online harms and a pilot programme to provide counselling intervention to victims.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said the response and attitude of law enforcement to reports of family violence is critical. She noted the White Paper had proposed that responders to family violence cases include social service professionals, and agreed that tackling family violence benefits from a comprehensive approach.

But she was concerned that a "softer" approach may lead to perpetrators thinking that they can try to explain their actions away, to which Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling later refuted, adding that social service professionals will be empowered to move victim-survivors out of their homes temporarily where necessary.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam highlighted the psychological significance of the White Paper.

"How many will dare to say men and women should not be equal? ... It is an achievement that regardless of whatever one may personally think that if people realise that expressing a contrary view would be against social norms, that means people understand what the norms are," he said.

"The impact on norms, values, the internalisation of the idea of equality - I see that as among the most important outcomes from this process," he added.

There was also emphasis on the role that men have to play.

Social and Family Development Minister Masagos Zulkifli appealed to men to step up and do more to make a difference, while Health Minister Ong Ye Kung called for men to be more proactive in supporting the women in their lives.

Said Mr Ong: "At the most basic level, let us respect women through our words and actions. Offences against women are clearly wrong, and the vast majority of us agree with that. Perhaps what is less obvious is the occasional insensitive remark that reflects an unconscious bias or stereotype.

"Understand and see things from a woman's point of view. Stop mansplaining, using diminutives, or doing things in the presence of women that they feel embarrassed by."

Rounding up the marathon sitting, Mrs Teo said the greatest contribution of the debate "is in upholding the values we hold dear as a society, and which will serve as our north star as we seek out the next milestones in women's development".

These values are equality for men and women - women should have equal opportunities to pursue their aspirations, as much as men; partnership - women should be regarded as equal partners of men, not only at work but also at home; as well as mutual respect between both genders.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who met some of the participants who shared their views for the White Paper in Parliament, said in a Facebook post that he was heartened by their optimism and conviction that Singapore was making progress in changing mindsets, improving conditions for women at home and at the workplace, and advancing women's interests.

"This is a promising start towards building a fairer and more inclusive society, where all Singaporeans can pursue their aspirations freely and to the fullest. My thanks to all who contributed to the White Paper, and to this ongoing collective drive for gender equality," he wrote.


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