Harmony Raya Conference 2020, PPIS Muslim Women Association, 20 June 2020
Good morning, everyone. Delighted to see so many familiar faces — always so energising to be in the company of bodacious women who take on the world! I thank PPIS for this privilege to share a few words.
Just yesterday, a community worker was sharing with me how this 42 year old mother in Jalan Kukoh (I’ll call her Ju*) had slipped recently and hit her head at home because of water on the floor caused by her 4 kids playing during HBL. She’s been suffering from frequent headaches since. The doctor has asked Ju to go for a CT scan but she chose not to as she can’t afford it. You see, Ju’s a migrant spouse from Malaysia with no access to healthcare subsidies plus she has no alternative childcare arrangements for her Singaporean children. Her Singaporean husband and sole breadwinner has unfortunately just lost his job as a hotel cleaner.
Other migrant wives like Y* were often the first to be retrenched because COVID-related job support schemes do not apply to non-citizens. Y* is married to my Singaporean friend, D* — they are both Deaf. They don’t have children but are caregivers to D*’s elderly father, a stroke patient.
COVID-19 has illuminated the unseen and unheard in our communities in ways that we can no longer ignore. This includes the many women-in-need in our midst, whether migrant spouses, elderly caregivers, single mothers, foreign domestic workers or those affected by family violence. We mustn’t forget the intersectionalities of mental health and disabilities across these groups as well.
I’m particularly concerned about the dramatic spike in family violence reported by Aware and the Police within the first month of circuit breaker, these are the ones who could call for help. Victims are being forced to spend more time with their abusers and many might be prevented from calling helplines. Just 2 weeks ago, a policeman came to my door asking if I knew anything of an emergency call by a neighbour in our block — I wasn’t able to help much because it had just happened, I could only say that her screams were bone-chilling.
Across the world, we are seeing COVID-19 affecting men and women differently in ways that exacerbate the gender inequalities for women who are often the hardest hit. Yet women play an outsize role responding to this crisis, including as frontline healthcare and social workers, caregivers at home for the young and elderly, and as mobilizers in their communities. Despite their challenging circumstances, many women-in-need like Ju* step up to these roles with grit and resilience, and are in fact showing us what’s possible if we give them the resources to rise and make the change needed for themselves and their families.
This was how a bench and a team of grandmothers in Zimbabwe tackled widespread depression, as I read a report by BBC 2 weeks ago. With just 12 psychiatrists in a country of 16million, an unlikely solution was found in grandmothers as community mental health volunteers. Evidence-based therapy training was given to them but the grandmothers also rooted their work in the cultural context of their community. The Friendship Bench, as the programme is called because the grandmas do the counselling on benches, is so successful that the method has been empirically vetted and expanded to countries beyond, including the US. I’m inspired by this ingenious effort that empowers the community by enabling the women, and not by making them wholly dependent on external or institutional services.
As Einstein said, we cannot solve the problem with the same way of thinking that created it in the first place. We must therefore seize this great crisis to do a great reset for our women-in-need: What will our social support policies and community initiatives look like if we don’t see these vulnerable women as ‘problems’ but as pillars of strengths of their communities? How can we enfold them as the solution? What resources do we need to avail them with so they can give their best to their families and communities, not what’s left of them? Their vulnerability need not be a measure of their weakness, their wounds can be turned into wisdom.
I’m running out of time so please allow me to conclude by urging us all to safeguard the progress we’ve made in gender equality before the crisis and escalate this further by making sure that women, especially those hardest hit, are put front and centre in our social and economic recovery efforts. Some of you may be aware of a citizens’ effort called Stronger for All which is championing for better and more diverse representation, including women, in the Emerging Stronger Taskforce. An Open Letter in this regard was sent to the Government on Monday, signed by more than 36 organisations and 10 individuals — I am one of them. The list of signatories is an ongoing effort, and open conversations are being planned. I support this effort because we must build back better and more equal if we wish to emerge stronger, together.
Thank you for listening. May you have a stimulating session today.
*Not their real names
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)
The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.
She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs). Anthea also founded and is now Chairperson of A Good Space, Singapore’s first co-operative to gather diverse changemakers, activists, dreamers, social entrepreneurs, charities and more, to create the Singapore of our dreams, together.
In representing women, Anthea is Former President of Society for WINGS and formerly a board member of Unifem (now UNWomen) and founding board member of Daughters of Tomorrow.