19 Jul 2011

UN CEDAW to hear about discrimination against lesbian, bisexual women in Singapore

A 3-member team from Sayoni, a queer women's group in Singapore, is in New York to present a report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for the first time.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is slated to review the situation of women in Singapore on 22 July alongside seven other countries this month. CEDAW is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Left to right: Jean Chong, Vanessa Ho and Kelly Then at the UN on 18 July. Photo: Facebook

Sayoni is one of two women's groups in Singapore – the other being the stalwart Association of Women and Action (AWARE) – to submit their reports and make oral statements to the UN CEDAW Committee. It is the first time that the concerns of lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) women in Singapore are represented by a queer women's group during this process.

Singapore is expected to respond to questions during the review afterwhich the Committee will make its Concluding Observations, identifying areas of concern and making recommendations for progress.

Singapore has ratified only two of nine core international human-rights treaties, one of which being CEDAW and the other being the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Although Sayoni declined to make public its report prior to the review, it said in a press statement that the report will "highlight prevalent and systematic discrimination against women based on sexual orientation and gender identity across social, cultural, political and economic spheres of Singapore."

The statement also highlighted the state's response submitted in a document ahead of the review when asked to comment on what measures are in place to address discrimination against women based on sexual orientation and gender identity: "The principle of equality of all persons before the law is enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, regardless of gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. All persons in Singapore are entitled to the equal protection of the law, and have equal access to basic resources such as education, housing and healthcare.

"... Singapore's employment legislation provides recourse for employees who feel they have been unfairly dismissed, including on the grounds of their sexual orientation and gender identity and they have recourse to appeal to the Minister for Manpower for reinstatement to their former employment."

The Constitution of Singapore however does not contain any specific reference to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Jean Chong, co-founder of Sayoni and delegate at the CEDAW meeting, told Fridae: "While we appreciate the State’s efforts to improve gender equality in Singapore, their responses to the Committee's questions have consistently revealed an ignorance of the discrimination experienced by queer women in Singapore at every stage of life. Furthermore, policies have been implemented and legislation enacted that institutionalise the discrimination."

Prominent blogger and gay activist Alex Au however made no bones about what he thought of the state's response: "As we all know, the situation for lesbians and transwomen fall far short of equality in Singapore, yet before the United Nations, when called upon to explain itself, the government blithely asserts that our constitution says what it does not say."

"You could call it chutzpah. Or you could call it cowardice, preferring to say what it thinks the international community wants to hear rather than own up to its own failings." Au wrote in his blog, republished here on Fridae.