Mandatory sexual health education for foreign domestic workers in Singapore

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Singapore, despite being a small country with 5.5 million persons, has approximately 222,500 foreign domestic workers (FDW),aidha-Part-1-Figure-11 commonly termed as maids, working in the country. This number is increasing with each passing year. These FDW are typically young females aged 21-50 that come from around the region – Phillippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Myanmar. FDWs may function in different roles depending on each family’s needs, taking up roles such as domestic help, behaving as a caregiver for the elderly, or to look after the children as both parents are working full-time.

Increasing attention has been paid to and legislation introduced to protect the welfare of these FDWs, as they are at risk for exploitation or marginalization in society. A recent rule introduced by the Ministry of Manpower was an obligatory day off every week to ensure that they have adequate rest, prevent social isolation and avoid depression. However, while the well-intended goal of ensuring that FDWs get a day off each week is to prevent over-working, it introduces a new problem.

Many FDWs socialize during their off days and may occasionally engage in sexual behavior. maids-pregnancyThe standard employment  contract for FDWs includes a clause where they are not allowed to become pregnant or deliver any child in Singapore  during and after the validity of the work permit, failing which it will lead to their repatriation. Abortion under 24 weeks of  gestation is legal in Singapore. While illegal abortions are rare, the concern here is that FDWs may seek illegal abortive  methods that may put themselves in undue risk as they may not want to seek help through their employer due to the fear  of deportation. In addition, they may also be at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Even though the  employer is required by law to pay for their medical needs, the FDW may not highlight this to the employer for fear of  shame or termination of contract, leading to a loss in income. This can result in an advanced presentation of illness and  can be a potential for unchecked disease transmission.

As a society strives to become more egalitarian, rights and welfare of all persons need to be maintained. As employers become more accepting of a mandatory day-off each week for FDWs, it may be inevitable that FDWs may have sexual encounters on their day-off. The goal cannot possibly be to constrain them but instead to de-stigmatize the issue so that they will seek appropriate medical help or advice. Hence, we need to ensure that adequate sex education on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases are readily available to this often marginalized population. My position on this issue is that sexual health for FDWs can be improved through mandatory sexual health education. This can be achieved through working together with UNIFEM Singapore (Singapore National Committee for the United Nations Development Fund for Women), AWARE (Association for Women for Action and Research) and TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too) to reach out to them the moment they arrive in the country. We need to ensure that FDWs are aware of contraceptive methods, the risk of sexually transmitted disease and what to do should they require help.

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3 Responses to “Mandatory sexual health education for foreign domestic workers in Singapore”

  1. mgaul13 Says:

    I agree that groups like UNIFEM, AWARE and TWC2 can be great resources to these women and can look to reach out and engage them in educational activities. However, I wonder if this education could start at home (in their respective countries, i.e. Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, etc.) Do these countries have comprehensive sexual health education programs? I think it is important for these women to understand their rights and resources within Singapore, but additionally, the need for this intervention could be unnecessary if they receive comprehensive sexual/reproductive health education in their country prior to coming to Singapore. If there were new policies instituted in these southeast Asian countries that required sexual health education in schools this could help increase their knowledge before they become FDWs.

  2. combsem Says:

    The education suggestions posed in the article by Etan16jhu and in the comment left by mgaul13 are strong. However, the original article made me curious about the power dynamics between the employer and the FDW surrounding health care (which I realize is outside the scope of this article). For non-abortion medical needs, how do FDWs negotiate the need of medical services with their employers? Better understanding how this interaction plays out could provide insight for future family planning intervention strategies. If FDW are unable to access other routine medical services, then this will make a sensitive and stigmatized medical need all the more challenging. Furthermore, if employers do support FDWs’ medical costs, what are the barriers to taking time off for the appointments, and transportation to and from?
    Finally, when signing the standard employment contract, do prospective FDWs fully understand the pregnancy clause?
    Thank you for writing on such a thought provoking topic.

  3. kerryescott Says:

    I am fully supportive of giving all women information about how to avoid STIs and unwanted pregnancy. I would suggest that for mandatory sexual health education to benefit foreign domestic workers it should focus on their rights, rather than just on biomedical information. They need to know that they can demand access to healthcare and abortion, and should know practical information about where to go for care, how to articulate the right to healthcare to employers, and which government body to contact if one’s employer is not giving the worker time off and money for healthcare.

    However, I wonder if the real issue here is not lack of sexual and reproductive health education for these women but the violation of their human right to become pregnant and retain their job? Isn’t it a human rights violation to fire and deport women who become pregnant and do not abort? If they want to avoid or terminate pregnancy, they should be completely supported. But some women will become pregnant and want to have the baby. Perhaps our advocacy efforts would be better focused on challenging the FDW visa program that discriminates against women (since only women can become pregnant) and violates their reproductive right to carry a pregnancy to term without being fired and deported?

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