By Kalinga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE, 30 Apr 2009 (IPS) – For 25 years, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) has been Singapore’s most important civil society campaigner for gender justice.
Advocacy by AWARE led to revisions of the penal code, including issues of marital rape (2007), the constitutional amendment to accord the same citizenship rights to children of Singaporean women as for Singaporean men (2004), and the right of women to sponsor foreign husbands for citizenship (1999).
AWARE runs a phone helpline, legal clinic, counselling services including a “befrienders” service which provides support to women in need by accompanying them to police stations, family courts and other help centres.
But gender equality may not be at the centre of its vision for much longer.
AWARE was recently taken over by female members of one of Singapore’s fastest growing churches, the far-right Church of Our Saviour, that is openly anti-gay and pro-family.
At the annual general meeting (AGM) end-March, the old guard, which has spearheaded its advocacy work, was voted out by a new group of women who have joined the association in the previous 3 months. Some 80 of the 120 members present at the meeting were all new members.
Six of the 11 members of the management committee of AWARE, including the president, vice-president, secretary, assistant secretary and treasurer, are new members – all Chinese Singaporean professionals and belonging to the same evangelical church.
“There were many faces I have not seen before, and I found that very strange,” recalls Dana Lam, a former president. “In the past, if there were new members, they would be known to one or more of the older members.”
Says Braema Mathi, a two-time president of AWARE and currently a consultant with the UN women’s agency, UNIFEM, “If you are keen to serve you don’t challenge every position. We do not know who they are!”
After refusing to speak to the media for almost two weeks about their intentions, the new management held a press conference on Apr. 23 at which a leading lawyer Dr Thio Su Mien, who is a former dean of the Law Faculty at the National University of Singapore, said she was the brain behind the take over of AWARE.
Dr Thio, who is 71 years old and a self confessed “born-again Christian”, told reporters she was disturbed by what she saw as signs of AWARE promoting lesbianism and homosexuality, and so, in the past year, she has been urging women she knew to join the group, and challenge AWARE’s attempts to redefine marriage and family.
Singapore is multicultural. Only a quarter of its 4 million people is Christian, but the number of evangelical Christians among them has been growing. Most of these are from the English-speaking professional class. Buddhists and Taoists comprise half the population, while Hindus and Muslims account for the rest.
“Twenty-four years of serious work may now be threatened by a group of women whose religious affiliation may lead to an exclusionary AWARE,” laments Hafizah Osman, an AWARE member, in a letter to the Straits Times daily. “It is sad that veteran members now have to fight against possible marginalisation of women by women.”
On Apr. 24, the veterans held a press conference to counter claims that AWARE was promoting lesbianism.
Founder member Dr Kanwaljit Soin clarified that homosexuality education was only a small part of what they did. “AWARE cannot be an ostrich which buries its head and pretends homosexuality does not exist,” she said. “There are many anguished young people who are bothered by it (their different sexual orientation).”
“(Because) AWARE’s founding principle has been inclusive, we cannot condemn, deny or exclude any woman because of her sexual orientation or because she has been abused by her husband or because she is a single mother,” according to Dr Soin.
Some 160 members of AWARE have called for an extraordinary general meeting on May 2 to discuss the implications of the change of guard at AWARE.
Many people have joined internet chat lines and newspapers are flooded with letters to the editor questioning the nature of “reforms” promised by the new members.
One such reader, Ravi Gopalan, in a letter to the Strait Times seeks clarification that AWARE will be open to people of all religions. “What are the checks and balances, for instance, to ensure that women who are at a low and vulnerable point in their lives, and who turn to AWARE for help, are not turned towards religious rather than practical answers?”
He argued that troubled and abused women who go to AWARE for help “should not have to be targets of proselytisation in order to receive the secular aid they need.”
Says veteran journalist B.N. Balji: “Let there be a clash of ideas and let the members decide what they want à Whether in politics or activism, it is the kind of maturity that Singapore needs.”