Sexual violence in Singapore: a crisis
in collaboration with Women Unbounded
Sexual assault cases trickle into Singapore’s headlines each day. But under-reporting means many, many more cases never see the light of day. We worked with Women Unbounded to learn more about sexual violence in Singapore—and what needs to change.
Trigger warning: Please note this article discusses instances of sexual assault and violence, including rape, molestation, harassment, child abuse—and its consequences, like depression and anxiety.
“Singapore is so safe—that kind of stuff doesn’t happen here”.
“He’s got a bright future ahead of him—all A-stars; this could ruin his life”.
“You saw what she was wearing right—of course this happened to her”.
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing”.
You might have heard, even from well-meaning friends and family, that sexual violence happens to a certain type of person, in risky places, and mostly with strangers. None of this is true. The narratives and myths surrounding sexual violence harm our understanding of how serious an issue sexual assault is in Singapore.
Sexual violence exists here in Singapore, and it is a crisis. Any sex-related conduct inflicted on non-consenting persons counts as sexual violence, and the hurt it inflicts can stay with a person for life. Victims may struggle with trust, intimacy, and self-esteem, as well as suicidal thoughts, long after the incident.
Frankly, many of us cannot truly understand what that feels like. But this is a reality for far more Singaporeans than we think. The lasting effects and trauma of sexual violence can impact survivors in ways that may take years to unravel.
Yet, most sexual violence incidents never come to light. Victims and survivors are often blamed or disregarded. They feel deep, internalised shame, guilt, and judgement; many fear reprisal or upsetting others with their stories. Perpetrators know this well; many use psychological tactics such as blackmail and grooming to silence their victims—especially children and other vulnerable individuals.
Between 2017 and 2020, 9,200 cases involved the young and vulnerable. Around half of all victims were below 20 years old—and just 13 percent of cases ended in convictions. Their perpetrators come from all levels of society.
The fact is, the data tell a story different from society’s myths about sexual violence—one as dark as it is common.
This is what sexual violence looks like in Singapore
The following data is collected from news reports from various Singapore-based publications (2017–2021). News reports vary, and not all cases are reported with the same level of detail. The detailed methodology is at the end of the story.
— Who tends to be involved in sexual violence?
The fact is that most victims of sexual violence are young. Their relationships with perpetrators are often dangerously imbalanced in power, leaving them especially vulnerable to exploitation.
Child abuse, especially where incest is involved, is severely under-reported. Even so, the Ministry of Social and Family Development received the highest number of enquiries and investigations of child sexual abuse ever last year—four times more than in 2011.
— How does sexual violence occur?
Younger victims are often less aware of sexuality and hold much less power than their perpetrators. This makes them much more vulnerable to severe physical violence over much longer stretches of time. A full half of all rape victims were under 18 years of age.
Older victims, in contrast, often deal with “indirect” offences such as voyeurism, a deliberate intrusion into another’s privacy.
Nearly all victims across all ages face psychological and emotional manipulation. Blackmail is a common tactic. In a horrific rape case involving 19 minors, the perpetrator first duped them into sending compromising pictures of themselves before blackmailing them into further sexual acts.
Children are not able to give consent and are mostly dependent on adults for having their social and emotional needs met and for understanding what’s wrong or right. Even if a child feels like something is wrong, they are often unable to express themselves, let alone stop what is happening to them.
Adult abusers use this imbalance of power to groom—befriend and emotionally set up—children for sexual abuse and downplay their own abusive behaviour, claiming that it’s a “normal” or “special” kind of affection. They may play on a child’s fears about breaking the family up or not being believed to prevent their victims from reporting them.
— Where does sexual violence occur?
Proportion of locations of sexual violence mentioned in 200 reported cases of singular victims.
Home is, by far, where most sexual violation happens.
Public places: Severe sexual assault often happens in public toilets, stairwells, and carparks. Molestation and upskirting tends to happen more in crowded places, like malls, trains, and buses.
Accommodation spaces loosely refer to spaces of residence and their surroundings that are not homes (e.g., hotels, hostels, HDB areas).
Educational spaces are the site of sexual violence too—from preschools and tutoring spaces to campus toilets and dorms.
Workplaces refer to professional environments, from offices to medical facilities. Perpetrators share a professional relationship with victims; they may be supervisors, colleagues, or service providers, for example.
Online may not be a place, but online chat apps are where much unsolicited sexual communication happens. Here, perpetrators also blackmail victims to set them up for more severe sexual violence. Tech-enabled sexual violence is fast increasing. AWARE reported three times as many cases in 2018 than in 2016, including voyeurism, upskirting, non-consensual distribution of compromising material, or threats.
Many people still think sexual violence happens in risky places and that victims are partly at fault because of where they go or whom they know. But the data show that it often occurs in places that we are most familiar with—with people we have every reason to trust.
The law has recently stepped up efforts against sexual violence
After many years of civic advocacy and recent social movements (e.g., #MeToo), the Singapore Parliament has enacted important legal reforms on sexual violence.
These changes offer victims more and better protections under the law—and can deter potential perpetrators from committing these crimes. Crucially, they show that vulnerability, power dynamics, and the quality of consent all matter in sexual violence.
The laws against technology-enabled sexual offences—such as seeking and distributing child abuse material—are especially important today. There are many ways to enable sexual violence, whether directly or indirectly, and the law now recognises them as important and worth addressing.
But the law can only do so much
Despite its power, much of the law’s protection happens after the harm has been done—and it relies on the case being reported in the first place.
Under-reporting is the far deeper problem, and it comes from our society’s beliefs and attitudes about sexual violence. AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre reports that only 30 percent of survivors seeking help for sexual violence at the Centre go onto report it to the police. Unlike victims of other crimes, survivors of sexual violence often face blame and shame—for not speaking up, not fighting back, or not making it known right away.
Why do victims keep their experiences to themselves, take months or years to share what has happened, or speak up only after someone notices something is wrong?
By now, most of us know about the fight or flight responses to trauma. But the truth is much more complicated than that. Freezing, or even fawning—attempting to please an abuser to avoid even more abuse—are less well-known but just as valid responses. Fawning happens especially with child victims, when the abuser is a parental or other authority figure.
It can take years for sexual assault victims to fully come to terms with what they have experienced. Even if they do, victims often feel shame, blame themselves for “allowing” it to happen—or even feel like they had caused it themselves. They may fear jeopardising their relationships with perpetrators, especially if it affects their safety, livelihoods, or reputations.
Of the tiny fraction of victims who do reach out for help, most are ignored or dismissed by first responders—including those in their personal circles. Friends, colleagues, and even relatives can find it hard to accept that someone they know and trust has done sexual violence, and some people instinctively react to protect the only impression of the perpetrator they know.
Others fear what will happen to their family, group, or organisation if an incident becomes known, leading them to tell victims to keep things quiet instead.
Trapped between not being believed and being believed but judged for it nonetheless, many victims of sexual violence bury their stories within them. Most never get the justice they deserve.
What can we do to change this?
Let’s be frank—sexual violence is complex, and resolving it calls for bolder imagination. We need to look beyond the black letter of the law to systems, resources, and individuals. Collectively, we have a responsibility—and the power—to change things. We can support recovery for survivors and uproot dangerous attitudes about gender and sex.
— Responses and resources for cases reported to the police
The Singapore Police Force has improved the reporting process for sexual violence. The OneSAFE centre, for example, allows survivors to report sexual crimes and get medical tests in one place.
Still, this is only for victims who report the sexual assault to the police within 72 hours—most victims don’t—and those below 21 years old require parental permission. Rape kits—which test for STIs and provide birth control—are only available at three hospitals and for those who make police reports. Offering victims access to a rape kit at any hospital, and the choice of when and whether to make a police report, ensures that they have the power to make critical decisions about their health and well-being, following a traumatic incident.
It’s crucial for anyone who interacts with victims of sexual violence to be trained in victim-centric sensitivity training, such as AWARE’s Sexual Assault First Responder Training (SAFRT). This includes police officers, doctors, first responders, lawyers, and judges. However, only 15 percent of SAFRT participants are male—which calls for more widespread training, education, and allyship across Singapore society.
All of this helps us prevent the re-traumatisation of victims—in which survivors are powerfully reminded of past sexual violence. This can set their recovery back further and lead them to lose confidence in official support systems.
— Mental health support and professional counselling for victims and survivors
Talking about one’s sexual violation can be just as painful as the experience itself. Responses that trivialise or doubt victims can make them feel even more shame, guilt, fear, and powerlessness—which may re-traumatise them further and disrupt their recovery.
Professional counselling and therapy should be made more widely available and accessible to sexual assault victims, regardless of whether or when one chooses to make a police report. Recovery is a lengthy and complex process, and it needs long-term, affordable support.
— Formal Education: Sexuality education
Looking beyond the survivors themselves, we need a better approach to sexuality education to stop sexual violence at large. Many victims of sexual violence are young, and current sexuality education must do better in teaching acceptable child-adult interactions. Many children still don’t share when sexual assault happens, blame themselves, or feel the need to stay silent in order to protect their families’ happiness.
Our sexuality education needs to emphasise respect for consent. Children must learn that the fault of sexual violence lies with those who violate them, even if it’s someone they know and trust. Learning about consent also makes it clear that less direct or physical harms—like voyeurism or violating an unconscious person, are just as wrong. Harm happens in the absence of consent, not of protest, and creating a culture in which one’s body should never be violated starts with our schools.
— Informal Education: Media
Rape myths, rooted in archaic ideas of sex as male conquest and women as sex objects, still influence which incidents of sexual violence are seen as more real than others. They lead to beliefs about what women wear and drink, how they act, and whom they visit or befriend. There has been little change in these attitudes about gender and sexuality, leading to victims being blamed for their own experience.
These beliefs may seem like common sense to some, but they open the door to more serious and dangerous sexual harms. Ideas like “women in certain clothes shouldn’t complain if they’re harassed” and “boys will be boys” are precisely why too many women take the blame for sexual violence—and too few men see their own hand in perpetrating it.
The status quo cannot continue. Too many victims of sexual violence live with trauma, unable to feel safe in their own bodies and homes. The shadow of sexual violence makes it hard to feel love and trust others; some victims struggle with this for the rest of their lives.
Sexual violence is a plague, spread in part by erroneous ideas and a culture that wrongly assumes who experiences it and how it happens. This results in a society that blames victims and often excuses perpetrators. The good news is that, just as deeply rooted laws and norms around whether women can work or vote have been eradicated, we can challenge and change our assumptions, beliefs, and behaviours today.
The blueprint is clear: legal changes must come with education—formal and informal—about healthy relationships, gender roles, and sexual boundaries. We must ensure broader institutional support for victims in the criminal justice system, healthcare system, and the communities victims and survivors live in.
This will be difficult, and it will take a long time. But now that we’ve seen the problem and what to do, we cannot—must not—stay silent.
Where can you learn more?
No one should experience sexual violence. If you have faced sexual violence and are looking for help—or simply want to learn more about it—please visit and reach out to these resources.
AWARE is a leading women’s rights and gender equality group in Singapore. It offers information about sexual assault, your legal rights, and how to get help. It also offers educational materials on understanding consent, abusive relationships, date rape, underage sex, and possible precautions.
The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE)’s Sexual Assault Care Centre offers provides safe, free, and confidential (see policy) services for anyone who has faced sexual assault and/or sexual harassment, regardless of when it happened.
The DSC Clinic provides subsidised testing, consultation, and treatment services for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It offers educational resources on sexual health, as well as STIs and their prevention.
The Singapore Children’s Society teaches children how to protect themselves against sexual abuse, using educational materials such as age-appropriate booklets. Sunbeam Place @ Children's Society is also a residential home and gazetted place of safety for children who have been abused, neglected, or are in need of protection.
SingaporeLegalAdvice.com is a learning center that helps provide legal information for individuals and small businesses. Its information on sexual harassment covers criminal offences, civil claims, and protection orders, and more.
Editor's note: The story has been updated to amend a factual inaccuracy. The original version had stated that "Between 2017 and 2019, 9,200 cases involved the young and vulnerable". The correct range, 2017-2020, is now reflected in the story.
Women Unbounded is a volunteer-based community headquartered in Singapore, working towards empowerment through connections, mutual aid, and ideas. Intersectional feminism is at the core of our activism. We remain grounded in our beliefs of fairness, respect, and empiricism.