Thoughts on violence against women in Singapore vs. Norway

Cultural norms of shame and victim blaming are more complicated issues to tackle, but we should not be afraid of stepping up and speaking out against these challenges.

by Catharina Borchgrevink, Change Maker

 Violence against women is very much a global problem. Although this particular We Can! campaign focuses on women in Singapore, this issue relates to women all over the world. Some issues are more relevant to Singapore as a society, but at the core we find the same harmful gender stereotypes everywhere, crossing national borders.

I am a Norwegian who recently relocated to Singapore. Norway and the other Scandinavian countries are by no means perfect societies for women. There is definitely room for improvement when it comes to workplace discrimination, sexist attitudes and behaviour, violence against women and gender stereotypes. However, gender parity in these countries is more in place on a global scale.

Many foreigners, including myself, are mostly unaware of the state of women’s rights in Singapore. On the surface, Singapore is clean, safe, and women have equal rights to education and healthcare. A closer look shows the cracks: lack of paternity leave, inequalities in the distribution of leadership positions, no benefits for single mothers and perhaps most shocking of all, the non-criminalisation of marital rape.

The latest statistics show that 1 in 10 women in Singapore will experience physical abuse by a man during their lifetime, and 6 in 10 of these women will suffer repeated abuse. These figures are not unique to Singapore. The UN states that 1 in 3 women worldwide will suffer from abuse. In Norway, it’s 1 in 10 women. Even in the most “gender equal” of societies, women are at risk, especially in their own homes. Most rapes and assaults do not take place in scary alleys and parks, they occur at home, by someone familiar or known to the victim.

One particular issue that needs to be addressed for Singapore is that marital rape is not recognised as a crime. Although rape is punishable up to 20 years, marital rape is an exception of this ruling. It should not matter what relationship the woman has to the perpetrator – after all, rape is still rape, and for many women the fact that the person committing the crime is someone they should be able to trust greatly compounds the severity of the crime. In Norway, the penal code does not make an exception for rape that occurs within a marriage or partnership—it is punishable up to 10 years in prison. However, receiving maximum penalty is rare, and even in Norway cases are often dismissed on the grounds of a lack of evidence. Underreporting is a problem both in Singapore and in Norway, and for many women, it is feelings of shame that stops them from reporting the rape. Where do these feelings come from?

Ingrained feelings of shame after a rape are common worldwide, including in Norway. One big difference however is that these feelings stem from the victim’s own emotions, and not the family of the victim. Cultural norms of keeping up appearances for the family, and family reputation, are much more common in Singapore and Asia than in Scandinavia. Upon reporting or coming out as a victim of sexual assault, the reaction from the victim’s family should be supportive and helpful, not insinuating shame or covering up the crime, which sadly often happens when families are concerned with keeping one’s reputation.

Personally, this culture of familial shame and victim-blaming is unfamiliar, and unexpected of Singapore as a society which, on the surface, appears to be progressive in terms of gender parity. While I can relate to family reputation being important, being willing to hide a crime is quite uncommon in Norway.

Having said that, even in Norway, the tendency to blame the victim still exists. People raise questions on what the woman was wearing or if she was drunk, showing that even across cultures, violence against women is indeed a global problem.

The root causes of violence against women have to be viewed from a global perspective, as it is not contained to a Singaporean or Asian context. Cultural norms of shame and victim blaming are more complicated issues to tackle, but we should not be afraid of stepping up and speaking out against these challenges. You, too, can make a difference in your own community—start a discussion of how Singapore can become a safer place for women today!