When looking at the empowerment landscape across Asia, it is easy to overlook the issues that women face in Singapore. Not far from the glittering skyscrapers of the world’s most expensive city are the homes of Singapore’s sizeable population of low-income families. Like anywhere else in the world, women from disadvantaged households are particularly vulnerable to marginalization and social exclusion.
Fortunately, there is a growing network of people and organizations that have recognized that there are still women in Singapore for whom gender-based inequalities are a real issue.
One such individual is Carrie Tan, the founder and executive director of Singapore-based Daughters of Tomorrow, an organization that seeks to enable and empower underprivileged women through training and employment in Singapore. Carrie sat down with Footsteps Asia to share more about her background and her organization.
Across the Bay of Bengal
Carrie’s personal journey, and that of Daughters of Tomorrow (DoT), began in 2007 during a volunteer trip to India.
“When I was there I became very much aware of the difficulties that many women and young girls face…especially those women in villages who receive little or no education and who believe, wrongly, that they are a liability to those around them.” She decided she wanted to do more to help.
“I asked myself what I could do to give these women some hope.”
Carrie spent the next few years trying to understand what initiatives really made a difference to the lives of these women. She found that many of the women wanted to develop new skills so that they could earn more money for their families.
“In 2011, I started a social enterprise that sought to give women empowerment through sewing training and employment.”
When Carrie returned to Singapore, she shared her experiences. Friends and family asked her why she wasn’t doing anything for local women.
For the Women of the Lion City
These conversations led her to talk to social workers and the network of government-run family service centers about the issues facing underprivileged women in Singapore.
“What I realized was that women were not given enough support to realize their own potential. Many of them are trapped in a cycle of feeling hopeless, and this then has a significant impact of the future of their children.
“I thought that if women in India could be empowered then so can those in Singapore.”
Gender inequality in Singapore still persists, even if its relative levels hold up well compared to Asian counterparts. Ranked 59th in the 2014 Gender Gap Index, Singapore scores highly in education and health metrics, but significantly lower in political participation and representation. There is also a significant pay gap between men and women in similar positions, especially when measuring senior-level roles. Women also disappear from work at alarming rates once they are married and have children.
Aptly, Daughters of Tomorrow shifted its model in 2013 to focus on ensuring sustainable employment.
“I realized that one social enterprise would not be able to provide many jobs, so I began reaching out to the business community and ensuring that advocacy was a core component of what we do as an organization.”
Carrie’s background in headhunting provided her with a unique understanding of both sides of the same coin.
“At the higher executive level, part of your work as a headhunter is to manage expectations from both sides. This is missing at the ground level. What happens is that on the employer’s side there are many misguided stereotypes and entrenched labels that can be hard to shift. We have found that employers can jump to conclusions when someone from a certain background fails to show up for work.”
To address this issue, DoT has devised an innovative training programs: “We offer a poverty simulation workshop. We ask participants to take on an identity of someone living in poverty and then to complete tasks that these women face day-to-day. We have had many people deeply affected by what they have learned during this. They have realized that many of their assumptions were wrong.”
For the Family
DoT also directly targets the area that represents the greatest source of anxiety for these women: their children.
“We offer a financial literacy workshop for the children of women in the program. The aim is to help children understand the difficulties that their mothers face in earning and spending money and the problems they face when they are pressured into buying the next gadget or toy for their children.”
As for the husbands of these women, DoT has encountered a range of views. “We have seen many husbands who are keen for these women to participate. However, sometimes we have women who are keen but the husbands are not. Traditional views of the role of men and women often are a central barrier to these women participating.” Carrie thinks the best way to overcome these challenges is the find a better way to engage men in the conversation about empowerment.
Mindsets Do Not Change Overnight
DoT does not seek to reinvent the wheel. Under Carrie’s leadership, DoT aims to expand on the traditional financial assistance and welfare schemes already available through government-sponsored channels.
“We work with and through 42 service centers, already supporting underprivileged families in various ways. This helps the work we do because the women we work with have another system of support outside of what we try to provide them.”
But Carrie admits there is a long way to go because the sector is still developing.
“At the time we tentatively began shifting our focus in 2012, I realized that this idea really had not been explored before. Empowerment was still in its infancy and it was mainly focused on the services [and financial assistance] side. What is important is for the whole sector to come together and have a dialogue so that empowerment groups are working with those that provide services.”
Carrie has big plans for the future of DoT. She hopes to expand the programming, create new partnerships, and expand regionally. For now, Carrie is taking it one day at a time, realizing that making her vision a reality will be a marathon, not a sprint. “The biggest challenge is how time consuming it can be. Mindsets do not change overnight.”
What helps Carrie carry on are the small moments where she knows she has made a difference. “When one of the women you have worked with comes and tells you of the pride she felt in being able to buy something for her family, it makes it all worthwhile.”