SINGAPORE - There has been a sharp rise in the number of foreign women seeking protection from violent Singaporean husbands, exposing a dark side to the growing trend of men marrying women from other parts of Asia.
Most of the women said they endured regular slapping, beatings, verbal abuse and psychological bullying, and were threatened that they would be sent home and separated from their children if they reported the abuse.
Many turned to the courts for protection only after years of abuse when they could no longer put up with it or felt their lives were in danger, social workers said. Most of the abused foreign women that social workers help are from China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
A spokesman for the Subordinate Courts told The Sunday Times that about 10 per cent of all requests for personal protection orders (PPOs) filed over the past three years were made by foreign wives against their fist-happy husbands.
This is a sharp jump from about 2 per cent to 3 per cent in the five preceding years. It means there were about 300 applications by foreign wives each year in the past three years, compared to about 50 to 90 previously.
A PPO is a court order to restrain an abuser from laying hands on his family members, and he can be fined or even jailed if he breaches the order and turns violent again. In some cases, the abuser can also be barred from entering the home.
The surge in foreign wives seeking PPOs comes amid an overall increase - last year, the Subordinate Courts received 3,073 new applications, the highest number in the past decade, and up 7 per cent from 2011.
Social workers say rising awareness has made victims more willing to seek PPOs and end family violence. The bulk of the cases involved people seeking protection from abusive spouses. In the past three years, just over half of the PPOs were filed by wives against their violent husbands, and 11 per cent by husbands against wives.
The rest were filed against abusive children, parents, siblings and other family members, such as former spouses and parents-in-law. Social workers said some marriages involving foreign brides are particularly prone to abuse, given their shaky foundations.
Violence can happen when couples who marry after whirlwind courtships have mismatched expectations, little trust and understanding, cultural differences and sometimes, no common language.
Latest data shows that about 6,900 Singaporean men married foreigners and permanent residents in 2011 - a 35 per cent jump from 2001. Over nine in 10 of these women were from Asia. Noting the rise in the number of abused foreign wives, counsellor Chia Kwok Ying of Marine Parade Family Service Centre said: "Some of these marriages seem more like a transaction than a marriage.
The women often marry for a better life here and their Singaporean husbands feel they can lord over them as the women are totally dependent on them." Mrs Seah Kheng Yeow, head of family development at Pave, a leading agency against family violence, said the men use their fists to control their wives.
"When their wives don't follow their wishes, they feel they are losing control and start being more aggressive and abusive to get the women to listen to them," she said. Pave's social workers started noticing more foreign wives seeking help in recent years.
In the 12 months to March this year, foreign wives comprised a third of all the women Pave dealt with who were abused by their husbands. This was up from one in five in the previous year.
The abuse is not just physical. Some men also lock their foreign wives at home, do not allow them to go out on their own or make friends or work, fearing that they will gain more independence and cheat on them.
Others threaten harm, blackmail their wives or rain verbal abuse on them.
Yet, many women keep silent about their suffering, as they don't know who to turn to, social workers said. Besides, they are totally dependent on their husbands, financially and even for the right to remain in Singapore.
They fear that if they report the abuse, their husbands will stop sponsoring their social or long-term visit passes and they will have no choice but to return to their homeland, separated from their children.
Social workers said the outlook is not so bleak even if a man stops sponsoring his wife's visa applications. Some of these women have been able to get work permits to work and remain here, said Pave's Mrs Seah.
Ms Elizabeth Tan, of the Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, said the women can also appeal to the authorities to allow them to extend their stay here, or find another Singaporean willing to sponsor their visit pass.
The Catholic group has also seen more foreign wives seeking help in recent years. Social workers also help the women find temporary shelter, legal aid and other support if they need to get away from their abusive husbands. But more has to be done to reach out to these women and let them know that help is available, those interviewed said.
Lawyer and Member of Parliament Ellen Lee, a long-time advocate against family violence, said: "We also need to educate the men on their responsibilities and obligations as husbands. We have to educate everyone that family violence is not tolerated here."
HOW TO GET A PROTECTION ORDER
Victims of abuse can apply for a personal protection order (PPO) by approaching the Protection Order Services at the Family and Juvenile Court Building, 3 Havelock Square.
A staff member will help, and if needed, draw up a plan to keep the victim safe from the abuser - for example, by referring her to a shelter.
The abuser will be summoned before the judge who hears the victim's application for a PPO. The court usually orders the abuser to attend counselling to help him stop his violent behaviour.
Victims are also given counselling and other support. If the abuser hits the victim after a PPO is issued, he can be fined up to $2,000 or jailed for up to six months, or both. The penalties get heavier for second and subsequent convictions.
For more information, call 6435-5077 or 1800-587-8423.
Anyone affected by family violence can call the following centres for help.
L Pave Tel: 6555-0390
L Trans Safe Centre Tel: 6449-9088
L Care Corner Project Start Tel: 6476-1482
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