Shedding light on sexual abuse in Singapore

The average expat in the utopia that is Singapore lives in a bubble. We enjoy safety, convenience, and luxury. But like any other developed country in the world, problems exist, and they need to be addressed.

When art teacher Barbara Harvey brought up the topic of sexual and domestic abuse in Singapore, I was surprised that it existed here. Moreover, I felt guilty for not knowing and acknowledging the truth – all over Singapore, there is abuse. Common cases occur with helpers and young girls who are abused by family members.

One Thursday morning, my advisory group collaborated with Ms. Harvey’s advisory to learn more about this problem. We were each told to take a pair of flip flops and write positive messadayspringges on them for victims of sexual abuse in Singapore to receive. Ms. Harvey explained that she was working for an organization called DaySpring that would distribute the flip flops to their clients.

I watched as each student began to draw on the shoes. We translated our messages to Tagalog and inscribed them on our respective pairs of flip flops. This is how it started. Every student in that room sent a message. We sent a message as a group that we were aware of the problems people are facing, and we were there to help.

“While [Singapore is] an incredible country with a whole lot going on and beautifully packaged, it would be easy to sweep some of these things under the rug and pretend that they don’t happen,” Ms. Harvey said. “I am grateful that there are organizations like DaySpring that can bring light to the situation. Not just bring light to it, but provide treatment.”

DaySpring was founded in 2006 by a woman named Alice Heng, an accountant who chose to dedicate her time to opening a counselling center. She wanted a place that would provide hope and empowerment for women. Heng passed away in 2007 from cancer, but her hard work paid off and allowed DaySpring to flourish into a powerful healing center.

DaySpring’s Residential Treatment Center was established by Cathy Livingston, an American woman specializing in youth care who has lived in Singapore for 16 years and worked hands-on as the clinical director for the organization. “We just knew that it had to be done,” said Ms. Livingston.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 9.50.39 am
DaySpring’s Residential Treatment Center. Photo contributed by DaySpring

Situated in a black-and-white house near Turf City, the Residential Treatment Center takes in girls from ages 12 to 16 in need of therapy and emotional support. Ms. Livingston explained, “We see all kinds of abuse, but typically it’s physical, emotional, and sexual.”

In addition to the Residential Treatment Center is the New Life Center, a place for single, unsupported pregnant women in Singapore to receive the care they need. Since 2006, progress has been made from working with youth to opening a whole new center to advance further treatment. “We really saw a need for this in Singapore,” Ms. Livingston said.

The clients of DaySpring usually come through the Ministry of Social and Family Development in Singapore, as the organization has an affiliation with the government. Ms. Livingston said, “We work very closely with the MSF to make sure we’re in the standards of licensing and to get the cases.”

Support from the government allows for the establishment to have sufficient funding, although there is always need for more. “We do fundraising,” said Ms. Livingston, “because we’re a VWO (Voluntary Welfare Organization – a non-profit organization that benefits the whole community), we have to raise a lot of our funds.”

“There are girls in Singapore who are just put in shelters but are not getting the therapy they need,” said Ms. Livingston. This is what drove her and her business partner Dominique Choy to get training for helping teens and what ultimately pushed them to open the center. Most of the girls come through child protection. “All of them have been taken away from their families,” Ms. Livingston said. “Some of them willingly, some of them not so willingly.”

The girls go through about a one and a half year program consisting of therapy and treatment. They receive an education, either through home-schooling with DaySpring or through attending local secondary school. Depending on their emotional stages, they get different privileges such as leaving the facility and gaining more freedom. In some cases, the clients’ families are also brought back into their lives depending on the situation.

There is also an option for other families to essentially “adopt” one of the girls. While she continues living in DaySpring, the families visit the girls, take them out, and allow them to get a sense of what family life is like in order to create a stronger bond with communication and human interaction.

Volunteering and tutoring the girls is also common in the facility. While the trained staff is the main priority when interacting with the girls, there are external groups that get involved. “They need positive influences,” said Ms. Livingston. “It gives them a little bit of hope.”

“What I’ve seen is that they’ve become a lot more resilient. Their life is far from perfect and they are still adolescents who are trying to find themselves. But I think they get a greater sense of self and stability, and the ability to handle their emotions better. What we try and create is a very safe place to help them work through their trauma.”

One of the girls who chose to remain anonymous said, “My time in Dayspring was definitely a mix of emotions. It was very hard for me in the beginning, I was this extremely moody person who was very lost. Therapeutic sessions definitely helped, and as much as I hated counseling, I actually got used to it.”

The therapy paid off. “All these things helped me to become a better [person],” she said, “one who knows what she wants, who she is and that [she] can have a future ahead.”

While the girls need specialized therapy and care that untrained volunteers might not be able to provide, what students can do is become more aware. In the paradise we call Singapore, we need to acknowledge that abuse and trauma is everywhere, however harsh that reality is. But the help these girls receive from DaySpring represents a step towards recovery and hope.

“I think the biggest thing that I see is that the girls gain a voice again,” said Ms. Livingston. “You know when you’re abused, you lose your sense of self, you lose the ability to feel like you have a voice. It’s all been taken from you. What we try to do is give them their voice back.”

Author: Diya Navlakha

Diya Navlakha is a junior in her tenth year at SAS. This is her second year as a part of The Eye. While originally from India, Diya spent her childhood in New York City and Singapore. A few of her hobbies include watching "Friends", baking, and spending time with friends and family. She can be contacted at navlakha33815@sas.edu.sg.

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