Singapore recently repealed Section 377A of their penal code, which criminalized sex between men. The government, however, stated that it will change the constitution of Singapore to give Parliament the power to define family as a one-man-and-one-woman heterosexual unit. What this effectively does is engender inequality not just for LGBTQIA+ folks, but also singles, as anything other than a heterosexual unit is then seen as “deviant.”
This inequality is not new in Singapore. Singles are not eligible for a government subsidy to buy Housing Development Board (HDB) flats unless they are 35 years old and above. Many singles end up staying with parents and extended families due to this policy. For single women, the disproportionate burden of care work, along with policing of their mobility in conservative households, can prove tricky to navigate and this further entrenches dangerous gender stereotypes. For single mothers, this becomes even more complicated because unwed and single parents are only eligible for limited housing subsidies.
Singapore also announced that from 2023, it would lift a ban on single women between 21 and 35 years of age who want to freeze their eggs for non-medical reasons. However, a caveat is in place: Women can only use the eggs if they are legally married. This immediately excludes not only same-sex couples who cannot get married under the country’s laws, but also single women who may want children outside of marriage, especially those who are 35 years old and above.
While Singapore’s laws and policies are one such example highlighting the discrimination single women face and the disproportionate burden they bear in terms of care work, it is not alone in such discrimination. Discriminatory attitudes toward single women are near universal, particularly toward single and childfree women who are working.
Many women in the 21 century around the world are choosing singlehood and a childfree life, particularly women who are educated up to a tertiary level and live in cities and urban centers. Despite societal progress in attitudes toward singles in recent decades, the stigma of being single still remains for women.
The term “singlism” was coined by Bella DePaulo to capture the “stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single.” For women, singlism gets amplified when laws and policies are discriminatory in addition to the misogyny and financial challenges they face as they often earn less and pay more for social benefits, health care, and income taxes. In April 2022, The Washington Post‘s Soo Youn wrote that single childfree women face a workplace penalty too. “Because they are more often stereotyped as lacking leadership abilities. These women were often seen as too ‘masculine’ for leadership when the same traits benefited single men,” wrote Youn. In many parts of Asia, landlords give rental preference to heterosexual married couples rather than single women. A noteworthy point is that globally, discrimination against single childfree women is seen as more acceptable than discrimination against mothers or any other national or social group.
In many parts of the world, there is a moral panic that comes with being single, childfree and female. These women go against the established norm of “couplehood” and marriage. Derogatory terms such as “crazy cat lady” and “spinster” (though this has fallen out of use, the connotations still remain) have been commonly used to describe single childfree women. Historically, they were also hunted as witches, and every culture has their own version of this. To encourage more tertiary-educated women to marry, Singapore even had a Social Development Unit (SDU) from the 1980s till 2006, where matchmaking was engineered by the state. Such moral panic gets reinforced and replicated in scientific-sounding data reports which state that married men are reported to be happier than single men. Such reports conveniently do not mention the disproportionate burden of care work that falls upon women and the unequal distribution of caregiving is thus made invisible.
Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong remarked on that. While progress has been made in women’s development, “more can be done to tackle gender gaps.” Gender gaps, however, will continue to exist as long as laws and policies do not catch up and level the playing field. To alleviate gender stereotypes, laws and policies too must reflect a progressive stance toward equality without further entrenching these very stereotypes.
Dr. Gurpreet Kaur, is a Public Voices Fellow on advancing the rights of women and girls with The OpEd Project and Equality Now.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.