I'm a migrant mother, striving to stay for my child

By Hoe I Yune, Jul 16, 2020

Trigger warning: This story contains mention of abuse and depression. 

Being a citizen comes with clear rights, but when you move to another country, the same rules don’t always apply. Transnational marriages (a union between two people from different countries) form one-third of all marriages in Singapore, but immigration policies put migrant partners at a disadvantage when it comes to domestic abuse, divorce, and housing.* 70 per cent of these transnational marriages are between a Singaporean man and a migrant wife. 

One struggle that these women face is their complete dependency on their citizen husbands for the right to reside in Singapore, unless they have a work visa. They often face challenges like low levels of education (which limits their job opportunities) and a language barrier. Despite the existence of schemes and social services available for them, many of these women are not aware of their resources and their legal rights. 

28-year-old healthcare assistant Aamilah** was once one of these women. Before coming to live in Singapore in 2013, she was born and raised in her hometown where she met her Singaporean ex-husband. After a courtship of six months, she married him with the belief that he could give her a better life. 

When her marriage unravelled after the birth of her daughter, Aamilah found herself at sea: with no home, no job, and no money, the only option seems to be to return home. It has taken her six years to find her footing, but she wants to remain in Singapore for her daughter. 

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I am a migrant divorcee living in Singapore. I have a six-year-old daughter who I have joint custody over. She lives with my husband. 

The reality is that for me to stay in Singapore to be in my daughter's life, I need a job so I can remain here on a Long-Term Visit Pass-Plus (LTVP+). As a low-educated foreigner, jobs are hard to come by. It's a constant struggle for stability, but I want to do my best to remain in this country.

The LTVP+ needs to be renewed every few years, but the conditions under which I can renew it, or obtain a more stable basis of residence are not stated clearly. 

Once during a pass renewal visit to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), I encountered some difficulties and the officer attending to me exasperatedly asked why I married a Singaporean. “Look, now you’re the one who’s suffering,” he said. It’s true that I am caught in a bind. Since coming to Singapore, I have visited my family back home no more than five times. If I had stayed in my hometown, I would have my family to support me and a permanent residency on homeground. 

Yet I fight to remain in a foreign country despite the uncertainty, because it enables me to see my child every week. 

Now that I am more familiar with Singapore’s legal system, I realise that I could have fought harder to prevent the loss of my daughter. Back then, I didn’t realise the rights I had as a mother of a Singaporean citizen, and I assumed that I didn’t have a choice as a migrant mother with no financial independence. 

When I first met my ex-husband and our relationship was smooth sailing, I believed that my love was enough to take a leap of faith and move away from home. 

I met him through my sister who was seeing a friend of his. We both spoke Hindi and got along. I fell in love with his humble and generous ways, noticing how pious he was and how he didn’t hesitate to help others. His kindness towards strangers made me think that a man like him would surely treat his wife right. 

Our age gap of more than 12 years didn’t bother me. He always made me feel understood and when he asked me to marry him, I said “yes”. I readily moved to Singapore and became a housewife as he didn’t like the idea of women working. I trusted him completely.

I never went out unless it was with him or his parents. He didn’t allow me to meet anyone and I had no phone. None of this bothered me in the beginning. Due to the nature of his work, he could work remotely and often kept me company at home. He treated me like a queen and I felt so lucky. 

It took a few months into our marriage before I realised that he liked me because he thought of me as docile and innocent. He wanted someone he could bully around.

I got pregnant very quickly and about six months into my pregnancy, my in-laws developed a sense of distrust towards me. They dreamt that my family and I were performing black magic on my husband and they believed it to be the reason behind his sudden skin infection.

At first, my husband fought for me, but things took a turn for the worse when I was 33 weeks pregnant. He grew violent and would shout at me to tell my parents to stop performing black magic on him. I tried to reassure him but it fell on deaf ears. I made excuses for him, telling myself that he was under a lot of stress from work and his parents. 

When I was 35 weeks pregnant, he hit me with a belt until I bled. Then he locked me in the house and left with the key. For three hours, I couldn’t feel my baby moving and panicked. I knew it would anger him but I called the police using an old phone I found.

My husband was questioned by the police while I was placed under overnight observation at the hospital. For the first time, I felt like I made a big mistake for marrying a foreigner and moving away from home. I was so excited before coming here but that day, all I felt was sadness and regret. I had no one I could turn to and definitely didn’t know anyone familiar with the law or social services. Weeks away from giving birth, I couldn’t fly home even if I wanted to.

The police officers asked if I wanted to follow up on the incident or if I wanted to close the case. I didn’t know what they meant and agreed to close it. 

I was scared and didn’t know if I could trust the police. In hindsight, what I should’ve done was persevere and pursue the matter.

A social worker called to see if I was doing okay, but my husband always listened in. I couldn’t possibly have spoken the truth in front of him, so I pretended to be okay. I decided to bear with my fate. I wanted my child to be a Singaporean citizen and have her rights, even though as a migrant wife, my right to stay in the country was dependent on my husband’s sponsorship. 

I knew that as a Singaporean citizen, my child would lead a better life, and receive better education and opportunities than I did. If I were forced to return home, at least she would have her father and his family to look after her here. I wouldn’t have been able to give her much on my own. 

Five days after I gave birth to a baby girl, my husband said he bought me a ticket to visit my parents. I hadn’t seen my child in days as she was kept in ICU but he insisted that it would do me good to be home for a month. I allowed myself to believe that things would get better.

When I landed back home, I realised my husband had no intention to let me return to Singapore and see my child. I received a text ladened with vulgarities, stating that he was filing for a divorce.

My family objected to me coming back to Singapore but I couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from my daughter.

All my life, I’ve had my mother to count on and I don’t want my daughter to ever think I abandoned her. 
 

My sister accompanied me back to Singapore. When we arrived at my husband’s house, he refused to let us in. We were similarly turned away from his parents’ home. I was so overwhelmed from grief and stress that I fainted at the HDB void deck and my sister sought help from a passerby. We were brought to the closest police station and a Family Service Centre social worker met with us.

For the following months, I moved in and out of women’s shelters. Separated from my baby, I went through bouts of postnatal depression, but I was adamant not to keep returning home, for fear that I wouldn’t be allowed back in Singapore.

The support I received in the shelters taught me to see the world in a new light. For the first time, I felt that there were people in my corner. The workers referred me to organisations, and I made friends. Although we faced different challenges, family violence was a common thread among us, and hearing their stories gave me strength. 

I attended workshops by non-governmental organisations such as Daughters of Tomorrow (DOT) to understand my rights as the migrant mother of a young Singaporean citizen, to learn English, and to become more employable. I worked as a cleaner and cashier, then DOT referred me to my current role as a healthcare assistant, which makes me $1,000 a month. It is a temporary position and just this week, I was informed that they won’t be extending my contract. I am terrified that this will affect my LTVP+ because it will mean I cannot stay in Singapore. But I am trying to be positive and focusing on looking for other jobs. 

I’ve recently completed my diploma under the sponsorship of non-profit organisation the Ray of Hope Initiative to increase my chances of securing a full-time job that hits a minimum financial wage. I believe it will help me get a more stable basis of residence here, cover expenses and allow me to save for my daughter’s future. 

My divorce granted me joint custody over my daughter but my ex-husband and his parents make things incredibly difficult for me. During the first few visits to see my daughter, he continued to abuse me until I had no choice but to apply for a Personal Protection Order. I had hoped to co-parent our daughter and for us to be civil towards each other, but it is not a sentiment he nor his family reciprocates. There have been times when my former mother-in-law refuses to answer the door. Now, our arrangement is that I visit my daughter at his parents' place two or three times a week for an hour, and I call ahead.

Up until recently, I didn’t see my daughter for three months due to COVID-19. As much as I knew I had the right to see her, I also wanted to respect my ex-husband’s concern that I work in healthcare and his parents are elderly. 

My daughter is delightfully chatty but it pains me to know that she has a stronger bond with her dad and grandparents than she has with me. I don’t want to pressure my daughter into leaving them, but I know that if she asks to live with me, I want to be in a position to be able to provide for her. 

She doesn’t understand why my ex-husband and I don’t live together, and her questions have made me realise that she has been fed fabricated stories of how I attempted to get rid of her. 

My daughter recently said her father promised to “buy” her a new mummy. I shudder to think that someone else could experience the physical and emotional abuse that I went through. 

I worry about what my daughter will think of me in the long run but when she asks me not to leave her, I remember that she wants me in her life. She hates hearing about my hometown because my ex-husband and his parents have told her that I want to return and leave her for good.

Hugging her tight reminds me that the sacrifices are worthwhile and that everything that I am doing is for her. Whenever she asks why I am not with her dad, I tell her to be patient and that I’ll explain everything when she is older. 

Sometimes I cry out of loneliness, and I know of women who have been in my shoes and given up. But whenever I see my daughter or even a picture of her, I remember my promise to never leave her. 

I wish I had never let a man control me, but the past is in the past. If I start complaining now, I’ll get nowhere. I want other migrant wives and mothers out there to know that if you know you want to stay here to be with your child, that will keep you going. If you feel alone, reach out for help. 

The government policies might be strict, but the social community here is very strong. I felt so lost when I first came here but in the last six years, I have learned through organisations such as DOT and AWARE, as well as the Ministry of Social and Family Development, that foreigners who come in on transnational marriages also have rights. I wish I had known it sooner, but I am glad to know it now.  

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*Gender equality advocacy group AWARE released a “Migrant Wives in Distress: issues facing non-resident women married to Singaporean men” report in 2020, which revealed that Singapore immigration policies disadvantage migrant wives when it comes to family violence, divorce and housing. 

**Details have been changed and kept vague to protect identities.

For help relating to domestic violence, divorce or housing access, please reach out to AWARE through their helpline (1800 777 5555) or email address (helpline@aware.org.sg ). 

As part of the Festival of Women: N.O.W. 2020, Entangled Intimacies: Transnational Divorce Narratives will feature staged readings of accounts from non-citizen migrant women on marriage and divorce and research works by sociologist Dr. Quah Ee Ling Sharon, poet and lawyer Amanda Chong and AWARE. AWARE's research was led by Chong Ning Qian. The live Zoom Webinar event will be taking place at 7.30pm on July 18, then available for viewing on T:>Works YouTube from July 19 until Aug 2. Find out more at https://www.notordinarywork.com/festivalofwomen.

Writer’s Note:

My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about normalising conversations about mental health and working away from home.

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