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Addressing Domestic Violence In Singapore: Challenges and Interventions


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In this Explainer, Find Out…

  • What are the causes and consequences of domestic violence?

  • How has the 2023 amendment to the Women’s Charter strengthened Singapore’s fight against domestic violence?

  • What are some challenges in addressing domestic violence?


Introduction


Families are commonly regarded as the bedrock of any society. Strong families provide the foundation for successful social policies to be enacted and are critical contributors towards societal stability and national cohesiveness.


The power of the family to fulfil such broad national goals stems from within — its function as the primary source of emotional, social and financial support for individuals. Unfortunately, not all families are havens of safety and support. Many continue to endure the hidden terrors of domestic violence today.


In Singapore, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) defines domestic violence to be ‘patterns of violent, threatening, abusive or controlling behaviours within the family, household, current or former intimate relationships, that cause hurt and/or fear for the safety and well-being of people involved.’ It can be perpetrated by and occur to anyone regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation or socioeconomic background.


Categories of domestic violence expand beyond physical and sexual violence, forms of abuse which are most commonly associated with it. According to MSF, domestic violence also includes emotional and psychological violence, as well as neglect.


This Policy Explainer will break down the causes and consequences of domestic violence. It will also discuss how Singapore combats abuse within the family through the Women’s Charter, including recent amendments. Finally, it will assess why domestic violence remains difficult to detect and address.


Causes and Consequences


While there is no one cause of domestic violence, abusive acts are commonly influenced by situational factors such as stress, financial problems, or even substance abuse. Domestic violence is often linked to the desire for control and to maintain power over theother party in a relationship. The desire for control may then be linked to several personal factors, including personality disorders, low self-esteem and feelings of insecurity. In some cases, domestic violence is even driven by harmful cultural norms, particularly those that normalise or excuse men sexually assaulting women.


The consequences of domestic violence are highly detrimental to society. Should conflicts not be amicably resolved, perpetrators of violence might resort to more harmful methods to maintain control over their victims. These increasingly abusive methods can cause victims to experience long-term trauma, affecting their physical and mental health, behaviour and social interactions. In the most severe cases, such trauma can lead to attempted suicide or even death.


Children who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence in their homes are particularly affected too. Growing up in fear can lead to anxiety or anger issues, causing behavioural problems in school which might persist into adulthood. This also negatively impacts those they interact with, creating a ripple effect that can damage the broader community.


Complexities of Dealing with Domestic Violence


All individuals have the right to feel safe and respected in their relationships; violence cannot be tolerated. It is thus crucial to enact policies that ensure that no one suffers from domestic violence. Yet domestic violence is a highly complex issue, posing challenges to policymakers.


First, domestic violence can take different forms. While physical and sexual abuse might be somewhat simpler to identify, emotional and psychological abuse, such as exerting control over another’s behaviour or victim blaming is less visible and harder to detect. There is also no concrete way to measure emotional or psychological abuse, as it is largely subjective, varying from person to person. Nevertheless, the harm caused to the victim is no less significant and should not be dismissed.


Second, as discussed earlier, the reasons for committing domestic violence are complex. Often, domestic violence is the result of a culmination of multiple issues that impact an individual’s ability to manage their emotions healthily.


Third, domestic violence often occurs behind closed doors. In cases where victims rely on their abusers for financial or emotional support, seeking help can be challenging, since such support is at risk of being taken away. Threats of further harm can also deter victims from reporting the abuse. Even in the absence of these threats, victims might not speak up due to stigma, the fear of breaking apart their families, or general feelings of shame. Given that family matters are considered private, individuals who observe domestic violence may refrain from intervening and instead remain passive bystanders.


Domestic Violence in Singapore


A 2019 review by the National Council of Social Service in Singapore estimated that about three per cent of Singapore’s population (of men and women) experienced some form of domestic violence. This is significantly lower than the global average, where one in three women has been subjected to physical or sexual partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.


However, like in many other countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore saw a surge in family violence cases (which are a subset of domestic violence cases). In the month after circuit breaker measures were introduced, 476 police reports were filed for family violence-related offences. This was a 22 per cent increase from a monthly average of 389 for such cases before the circuit breaker period.


Confined to their homes amid a health crisis, rising stress levels could have caused abusers to become more abusive towards their family members. Lashing out at those around them could also be an attempt to retain control in their immediate environments. For family violence victims, the circuit breaker meant that they were in closer physical proximity to their abusers, thus preventing them from reaching out to their support network for help. The absence of monitoring also increased victims’ isolation from support networks. For example, school counsellors and teachers can no longer check on potential child abuse victims when they are not in school.


Despite Singapore’s domestic violence rates being lower than the global average, it is still important to strive for a society where no one is a victim. Singapore has taken steps in that direction, the most significant of which is the Women’s Charter.


The Women's Charter


The Women’s Charter, an Act passed in 1961, first aimed to protect women’s rights in Singapore. Today, it also regulates monogamous marriages and the protection of the family, outlining the rights of both husband and wife. This includes provisions protecting individuals from family violence (and thus domestic violence).


Measures Against Family Violence


Pre-2023, the Women’s Charter had already contained a suite of measures protecting individuals against family violence.


The Personal Protection Order (PPO), which is outlined in the Women’s Charter, is one of the main measures included. A PPO restrains the abuser from using violence against the applicant or other family members. If the abuser breaches the PPO, they may have to face a fine of up to S$2000 or imprisonment for up to six months. This safeguards the applicant/ family from further harm when the court determines that the abuser has committed or is likely to commit acts of violence.


To obtain help with applying for a PPO, one can approach Protection Specialist Centres (PSC), which are in-person offices. They also provide services such as casework and counselling. There are several PSCs located around Singapore, in Bedok North, Yishun, Ang Mo Kio, and Commonwealth.


Alternatively, victim-survivors can use the 24-hour National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline (NAVH) or make a report via the NAVH Reporting Form. These services can be used by individuals who are suffering domestic violence, as well as people who may know of others involved in abusive relationships. However, if a life is in immediate danger, one should call the Police at 999 or SMS 71999 instead.


2023 Amendments to The Women's Charter


On 4 July 2023, amendments to the Women’s Charter were passed to enhance the protection of family violence victims and grant the Government more authority to address these cases. The amendments are summarised in Figure 1, with key changes elaborated below.


Making It Easier to Report Domestic Violence


Firstly, the updated definition of ‘family violence’ sheds clarity on the scope covered by law. When we think of domestic abuse, physical abuse often comes to mind first. The new definition makes it clear that sexual, emotional and psychological abuse are also included. For example, controlling behaviour such as constantly tracking a spouse’s whereabouts or not letting them see family and friends are considered acts of emotional/psychological abuse. The improved definition of domestic violence reassures survivors that they are experiencing a legitimate form of abuse, giving them greater confidence to seek help.


Furthermore, younger survivors are enabled to report violence. Previously, those under 21 years old had to rely on a guardian to make an application. Now, unmarried 18 to 21-year-olds can apply for a PPO on their own.


Figure 1: 2023 Updates to the Women’s Charter


Strengthening the Government’s Ability to Intervene in Critical Situations


Secondly, those under 18 can also get help from a “protector”, a trained professional in MSF, to apply for

a PPO. “Protectors” can also help adult survivors. The amendment enhances the power given to “protectors”, allowing them to issue Emergency Orders when there is a high risk of the abuser hurting the survivor in the short term, especially while the PPO application is being processed. The Emergency Order is effective for 14 days and functions as a temporary PPO.


Additionally, more extensive protective orders are available to survivors. On top of Domestic Exclusion Orders (DEOs), which ban abusers from entering the home, the amendment introduces Stay Away Orders (SAOs) and No Contact Orders (NCOs). An SAO bans the abuser from other places that the victim commonly visits, such as the workplace. An NCO bans communication from the abuser, such as texting. These measures afford the authorities greater ability to protect survivors beyond the boundaries of the house.


Enhanced Penalties and Rehabilitation Processes


Thirdly, better deterrence and rehabilitation of abusers can increase the chances of stopping the vicious cycle of family violence. To enhance deterrence, the fine for the first conviction will be raised to a maximum of S$10,000, from S$2,000, and the jail term increased to a maximum of 12 months. Meanwhile, to enhance rehabilitation, breaking a Counselling Order (sessions at a social service agency) or Mandatory Treatment Order (to undergo psychiatric treatment at the Institute of Mental Health) is now considered a crime. This change was made because some abusers ignored these orders and skipped the sessions. With a firmer approach to ensuring participation in rehabilitation, Singapore can more effectively address the root cause of domestic violence.


Beyond the 2023 Amendments


The 2023 amendments to the Women’s Charter undoubtedly provide greater support for survivors, but more needs to be done. This section will discuss the essential role of the community in helping victims, and the increasingly prominent issue of financial abuse.


Be Upstanders, Not Bystanders


Beyond government efforts, community actors play a crucial role in helping victims, especially those who are unwilling or unable to seek help. The Signal for Help, created by the Canadian Women's Foundation in 2020, is a discreet gesture used to indicate distress and need for help during situations of threat, whether in person or over video calls. The gesture has gained global visibility via TikTok. It was also incorporated in the logo for MSF’s Break the Silence campaign to raise awareness.


Figure 2: Signal for Help Hand Gesture


Furthermore, neighbours who witness signs of domestic violence should not stay silent. Some may have reservations about stepping in, such as concerns for their safety, fear of worsening the situation or coming across as “kay-poh”. However, doing nothing is not ideal either, as it puts victims at risk of greater harm. Thus, there is a need to reframe our mindset: reporting domestic violence is not a “kay-poh” act, but a necessary move to help vulnerable families.


Financial Abuse is Difficult to Spot


MSF considered including financial abuse in the updated definition of family violence in the 2023 amendment to the Women’s Charter. However, financial abuse was ultimately deemed as an emerging issue that needed more study, due to its complexity in interpretation.


Financial abuse takes various forms, like a spouse restricting someone's employment and controlling their spending, or adult children coercing money or assets from elderly parents. As gifts and money are often exchanged between family members, it is difficult to draw the line between defining bad financial decisions and financial abuse involving manipulation (especially in cases of elderly abuse).


Nevertheless, financial abuse is recognised as an issue that needs urgent action, due to the rising occurrences. Over the last three years, social service agencies in Singapore have noted a more than 50 per cent rise in financial abuse cases. On this note, there is a pressing need to enhance financial education for survivors, such that they can move towards supporting themselves and regaining their freedom. This could help to reduce the number of domestic violence incidents involving financial abuse.


Conclusion


Traditionally, families are considered private units, making conversations about domestic violence a sensitive matter. However, there is a growing recognition that privacy should not serve as a barrier to ensuring the well-being of individuals. This is reflected in Singapore’s changes to policy, which provide increased support for survivors and help abusers reform their harmful behaviours.


Beyond amendments to the Women's Charter, this recognition extends to other contexts, such as changes to the Maintenance of Parents Act. Nevertheless, the community continues to play a critical role in facilitating support for survivors and looking out for those in need. Together, policy and community efforts will ensure that fewer individuals fall through the cracks.


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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own.


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of Singapore.

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