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Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) 1 Beatty Road, Singapore 209943 Tel: +65 6298 5911 Fax: +65 6392 4300 Web: www.sinda.org.sg


Mathew Mathews

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Corporate & Marketing Comunications Division, SINDA

Printed in Singapore Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers/By Mathew Mathews ISBN


First Edition/Paperback


Copyright Š 2013 by Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA)



On Project Athena and this Handbook


Acknowledgements by Author


Researching Single Mothers


Challenges of Indian Single Mothers in Singapore


Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena


Reflection on Working with Indian Single Mothers


Acknowledgements by SINDA Family Service Centre


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers


t gives me great pleasure to write this foreword as I have been associated with the growth of SINDA since it was first established. SINDA has expanded its reach, as well as its role, to go beyond looking at the educational achievements of Indian students. This publication is a testimony of the joint efforts of SINDA’s staff and volunteers to study low-income Indian single mothers and the effects of the intervention programme, Project Athena, that was targeted at this client group. This is a significant research project that I hope, will be the start of more such systematically planned research on areas that require attention.


In my experience as a member of the SINDA 2020 Review Panel during the discussion sessions, other community issues also emerged and I believe that as the lead organisation of the community, SINDA has much to do in the coming decade. More trained Indian social workers are required to help deal with many of these issues. I hope that this publication will inspire young Indian students to enter into the social work profession by obtaining a Bachelor degree in Social Work. As Singapore strives to maintain its position in the global economy in this century, the complexities faced by Singaporeans will increase. The next generation will have to innovate and create its own pathways in navigating through the new challenges. Nevertheless, the social services will have to be available and accessible to support families that may need assistance, and I think SINDA has to ensure that it plays an active part in ensuring this within our Indian community. With best wishes, Associate Professor Kalyani K.Mehta Head Gerontology Programme, School of Human Development and Social Services SIM University


On Project Athena and this Handbook



On Project Athena and this Handbook


n 2009, SINDA Family Service Centre (SINDA FSC) piloted Project Athena to address the underlying issues faced by low-income Indian single mothers. Through their work with these women, social workers at the agency had identified pertinent issues that were preventing these women from breaking out from the cycles of poverty and stagnation. The women who had entered into the programme were in a phase of their lives that they neither planned nor asked for. Some had become single mothers as a result of the poor decisions they made in the past; others as a result of circumstances beyond their control. Given their different background and circumstances, the mothers in the programme did not necessarily share the same values. They all had two things in common though - all were suffering and all needed help. A targeted approach was thus needed, to deal with the deeply entrenched issues faced by these women. Such an approach was necessary not only to empower these women to learn new skills and enhance their resiliency, but also to empower these women to take control of their lives resulting in them and their children becoming confident individuals. At the end of the pilot programme, Dr Mathew Mathews was commissioned by SINDA FSC to better understand the lives and needs of Indian single mothers and assess the effectiveness of Project Athena. This handbook condenses the vast amount of detail from the research. It documents the challenges faced by these women and summarizes the effectiveness of the interventions in the pilot project. Comprehensive and concise, it is aimed at being a handy resource for professionals and volunteers in the social service sector, and students studying social work. It is also my hope that this handbook will provide a valuable platform for other agencies in their work with similar populations and help them to be better informed about the realities faced by the Indian single mother population. Renjala Balachandran, RSW Head, SINDA Family Service Centre



Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

by Author


his publication is made possible through the generous donation of Mr Rajoo Amurdalingam, who not only sponsored the cost of this handbook but is also a major donor of Project Athena.

The research this handbook is based on was funded by the National Council of Social Services’ VWOs-Charities Capability Fund and the Tote Board. My special thanks to the Board of Trustees, Executive Committee and the senior management of SINDA for approving this research project and its subsequent communication. Mr Janadas Devan, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies and Mr Ong Keng Yong, the previous Director, who kindly agreed to my work on this project. The staff at SINDA Family Service Centre who contributed much to this research; Ms Jagjit Kaur worked tirelessly to see to this research and Ms Renjala Balachandran provided the necessary supervision. A dedicated team helped to administer the survey and the interviews. Several research assistants helped with managing and analysing the data. I am deeply appreciative of the help rendered by Brenda Wee, Chan Su Yin, Elroy Lai, Sangeetha Madasamy and Karthigayan Ramakrishnan. The many mothers who agreed to be surveyed and interviewed as part of this project must be thanked. Their openness to share details of their life has made this a worthwhile project. Mathew Mathews, PhD Research Fellow Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy National University of Singapore




Researching Single Mothers


his section provides the rationale for researching the challenges faced by lndian single mothers and provides a brief overview of the international research on this matter. The methodology that was used to conduct this study and the basic profile of participants are included.


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Researching Single Mothers



esearch in developed Western societies document that single mothers experience substantial challenges. When compared to women of similar socio-economic statuses but living with their spouses, single mothers are more likely to face financial and caregiver strains, have lower levels of self-esteem and mastery, increased psychological distress and lower levels of social support.1 2

The strains experienced by single mothers sometimes place them among the ranks of vulnerable populations.3 While some single mothers are very resilient despite their singlehandedly having to provide for the financial, emotional and overall well-being of their children, many others have difficulties. In the face of such problems, single mothers may use various coping strategies.4 Some may choose coping styles which are often referred to as cognitive and behavioural avoidance. This is in contrast to active problem solving or seeking social support. By using avoidant coping styles, mothers may give in to the pressures of the moment, such as giving in to the wishes of their children without considering future consequences or withdrawing from both their child caring roles and the community at large. Such avoidant styles are known to further increase levels of distress and are related to poor child and family outcomes. Internationally, studies have shown that particular groups of single mothers are sometimes more vulnerable than others. Racial minorities are often doubly marginalised – their being single as well as women of a minority group. The local Singaporean Indian community has also identified the disproportionate number of single mothers among the poor in the community and is concerned about the challenges this group faces and whether there are strategies that can help them gain resilience.5

In 2009, the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) spearheaded Project Athena as a programme under its Family Service Centre. This programme, while focusing on the needs of Indian single mothers, also provided a range of activities for the children of these parents. Project Athena was designed to be holistic in its engagement with the single mother. Mothers who agreed to participate in this programme were case-managed and received individual counselling. They were also included in a support group with structured sessions. These sessions used hands-on activities to help mothers articulate their concerns and provide them a boost of selfesteem and confidence to cope with the challenges they were facing. At the later stage of the programme, mothers were involved in discussing plans to help their children attain their aspired goals. This guidebook presents information from a research conducted among Indian single mothers in Singapore who received at least some social service assistance through SINDA FSC. Through the use of a structured survey and in-depth interviews, information about the challenges faced by these single mothers will be presented. In presenting survey findings, results from a sample of low-income Indian mothers who live together with their husbands (intact families) and who were clients at SINDA FSC will be included. This allows meaningful comparisons which facilitate an assessment of the unique challenges posed to Indian single mothers. A separate section of this guidebook will discuss the structure and usefulness of Project Athena as an intervention to Indian single mothers. Considerations for practice with low-income Indian single mothers will be discussed along with case studies and reflections from those who have worked with this population.

Franz, M., Lensche, H., & Schmitz, N. (2003). Psychological distress and socioeconomic status in single mothers and their children in a German city. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 38(2). 59 – 68.


Olson, S. & Banyard, V. (1993). “Stop the world so that I can get off for a little while.”Sources of daily stress in the lives of low income single mothers of young children. Family Relations, 42, 50-56.


Cairney, J., Boyle, M., Offord, D. R. et al (2003) Stress, social support and depression in single and married mothers. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 38, 442–449.


D'Ercole, Ann (1988) Single mothers: Stress, coping, and social support. Journal of Community Psychology, 16, 41-54.



Singapore Indian Education Trust (old website), accessed in 2011



Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Insights from International Research on Single Motherhood


esearch conducted internationally shows that single mothers face significant psychological, emotional, physical, financial and social challenges.

Poverty Poverty rates among lone-parent families are often higher than those in the general population.6 7 Single mothers with children remain vulnerable to multiple chronic risk factors, including financial and food insecurity, poor health care and poor quality housing in unsafe neighbourhoods.

Parenting & Work Due to childcare related problems, single mothers often hold low-income jobs that do not provide employment benefits.8 There is a scarcity of jobs that offer flexible schedules and a reliable pay check, both crucial for these mothers.9 Mothers with young children have much difficulty managing the multiple roles of work and family,10 hardly obtaining sufficient rest for themselves.

Researching Single Mothers

Determinants of Psychological Well-being in Single Mothers Income Higher levels of depression were associated with financial hardship, especially for mothers in time-limited public assistance support.12 Low-income women had twice the clinical depression rate of women in the general population.13

Stress of separation Stress of separation or divorce may lead to poor mental health.14 The turmoil experienced in discontinuing the relationship is a more significant predictor of anxiety disorders than the stress of raising a child alone without the setbacks of marital conflict.

Employment Status Employment regardless of income or number of hours worked, offers some protection against mental health problems.15 16 Mother’s employment brings with it a number of psychological benefits, including financial independence, improved self-esteem, and increased access to social networks that enhance mother’s psychological well-being.17 18 19 20 On the other hand, being unemployed and requiring social assistance appeared to increase women’s exposure to a number of enduring stressors and strains that compromise women’s health. Social assistance experience contributed to decreased levels of self-worth and perceived control over their situations.21

Single Mothers and their Psychological Well-being The experiences of single mothers are often discussed in the context of how poverty, unemployment and parenting difficulties affect their psychological well-being. In a comparison between married, never-married, separated and divorced mothers, single mothers had a higher likelihood of depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and a number of other disorders. Unmarried mothers were more likely than married mothers to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PSTD) and antisocial personality, and indulge in substance abuse.11

Casey, P., Goolsby, S., Berkowitz, C., Frank, D., Cook, J.Cutts, P. 2004. Maternal depression, changing public assistance, food security and child health status. Pediatrics, 113: 298–304.


Bassuk, E.L., Buckner, J,C., Perloff, J.N., & Bassuk, S.S. (1998). Prevalence of mental health and substance use disorders among homeless and low-income housed mothers. American Journal of Psychiatry, 155, 1561 – 1564.


Afifi et al., 2006


Ali, J., & Avison, W. R. (1997). Employment transitions and psychological distress: The contrasting experiences of single and married mothers. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 38 (4), 345–362.


Council of Europe (n.d.). Report on Psycho-Social Aspects of Single-Parent Families. Health Policy. Retrieved April 3, 2012, from http://www.coe.int/t/dg3/health/Reportsingleparents_en.asp


Orthner, D. K., Sanpei, H. J., & Williams, S. (2004). The Resilience and Strengths of Low-Income Families. Family Relations, 53(2), 159 - 167.


Broussard, C. A. (2010). Research Regarding Low-Income Single Mothers' Mental and Physical Health: A Decade in review. Journal of Poverty, 14(4), 443-451.


Gemelli, M. (2008). Understanding the Complexity of Attitudes of Low-Income Single Mothers Toward Work and Family in the Age of Welfare Reform. Gender Issues, (25), 101 -113.


Ali & Avison. (1997).


Avison, W. R. (1995). Roles and resources: The effects of family structure and employment on women's psychosocial resources and psychological distress. In J.Greeley (Ed.), Research in Community and Mental Health (pp. 233–256). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.


Gyamfi, Brooks-Gunn, & Jackson. (2001).


Campbell, M, L., Moen, P. (1992). Job-Family Role Strain Among Employed Single Mothers of Preschoolers. Family Relations, 41(2), 205 - 211.


Afifi, T. O., Cox, B. J., & Enns, M. W. (2006). Mental health profiles among married, never-married and separated/divorced mothers in a nationally representative sample. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemology, 41, 122-149.




Gyamfi, P., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Jackson, A. P. (2001). Association between employment and financial and parental stress in low income single black mothers. Welfare Work and Well-Being, 32 (1/2), 119–135.



Perez, C., & Beaudet, M. P. (1999). The health of lone mothers. Health Reports (Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Health Information), 11 (2), 21–32. Nicolas & Jean Baptiste, 2001


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Coping Resources Positive coping through the use of help-seeking from informal sources and the use of problem-solving strategies were positively associated with women’s psychological well-being.22 Conversely, avoidance coping was a positive predictor of depressive symptoms.23 The tendency for single mothers, especially those on social service assistance, to predominantly utilise avoidance strategies must be understood within the context of single mothers’ lives – poverty, lack of or compromised social network, chronic physical and mental illness, risk of homelessness and their inability to control or alter types of stressors they encounter. All this may in part explain the prevalence of such an avoidance coping style within this population.24

Researching Single Mothers



his study adopted both a quantitative and qualitative approach to better address the issues faced by Indian single mothers. It was subjected to ethical review by the National University of Singapore Institutional Review Board and received approval.

Quantitative Study Sample A face-to-face survey was conducted on a sample of mothers. This survey used a sample of 800 female SINDA Family Service Centre clients who applied to receive Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund for their children in 2010. This population included both single mothers as well as Indian mothers who have co-residential spouses. Out of this population, 106 were not contactable, despite repeated attempts. This was often because of changes in phone numbers or low top-up values in their prepaid mobile phones. Of the remaining, 441 agreed to participate in the study which resulted in a response rate of 64% It was not apparent if there were substantial differences between those who participated and those who did not. It is possible that those who were not contactable were in greater financial difficulties considering that they were not able to top up their mobile phones. Thus the conclusions from this study must be tempered based on this reality.

Survey Procedure Mothers who agreed to the SINDA FSC case workers’ request to be part of this study were contacted by members of the investigator’s research team. They were informed about the study and assured that their participation was voluntary. They were also assured that the information from the study would not be provided to their current or previous case workers in SINDA FSC. Mothers who agreed to participate in the survey arranged with the interviewer for an appropriate time for them to complete the survey.

Cohen, O., & Dekel, R. (2000). Sense of coherence, ways of coping, and well-being of married and divorced mothers. Contemporary Family Therapy, 22 (4), 467–486.


Hall, L. A., Gurley, D. N., Sachs, B., & Kryscio, R. J. (1991). Psychosocial predictors of maternal depressive symptoms, parenting attitudes, and child behavior in single-parent families. Nursing Research, 40 (4), 214– 220.


Samuels-Dennis, J. (2007), Employment Status, Depressive Symptoms, and the Mediating/Moderating Effects of Single Mothers' Coping Repertoire. Public Health Nursing, 24: 491–502.

None of the interviewers were current staff of SINDA FSC. All members of the research team were Indian by ethnicity and had prior experience working with Indian clients. Most of them were professional social workers or counsellors working in a variety of settings. The other interviewers had a background in social service work with some level of training in social work. All interviewers were briefed about how to conduct the interviews and how to deal with respondents’ anxieties or concerns.




Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Researching Single Mothers

Surveys were completed either at a residential unit or a void deck depending on the setting which allowed greater privacy for the respondent. The survey administered in either English or Tamil took between 45 minutes to an hour to complete. Participants were taken through the survey by the interviewer. They were informed that they could choose not to answer any question they felt they preferred to skip. This was to ensure that there were less reasons for respondents to provide false responses to questions that they were not comfortable answering. No unique identifiers such as identity card numbers or addresses were collected on the survey to further ensure that respondents would not feel guarded when responding.

and at what frequency. Most of the items followed closely with Dunst and Leet’s scale with some modifications to fit the local context. A few other items were included from Saunder, Naidoo and Griffiths’ index of items linked with social exclusion.27

A $15 NTUC voucher was given to the respondent at the end of the survey. These tokens were given to acknowledge the respondent for availing herself for the interview.

Traumatic Events and Coping

Measures The survey was composed of several instruments that sought to provide information on a number of issues which were pertinent to understanding the experience of single mothers. Social Support and Networks A standard social support and network measure was used to assess the social support the respondent normally received. The respondent was asked, “When you need help, is there anyone you can turn to? If there is someone, who is this person you normally turn to?” A number of needs were mentioned including urgent financial assistance, family problems and urgent help with child-care. Questions were asked to assess the number of friends and family members the respondent got on well with. Resource Adequacy A series of questions examined the availability of a variety of resources that are seemingly necessary for parenting. The first set of items was based on the Family Resource Scale developed by Dunst and Leet which has been tested extensively in many studies on low income families in a number of societies.25 26 Respondents were asked “whether you and those who live in this household have adequate resources to meet the needs of all who live in this house.” This measure included thirty-three items where the respondent rated on a 5-point Likert scale in terms of whether the need was being met

The second set of measures used to understand the availability of resources was based on a question assessing how helpful a number of people or groups were in helping the mother raise her children in the last 3 to 6 months. This measure was part of the Family Support Scale by Dunst, Trivette, & Deal which had also been adapted for the local setting.28

An instrument, developed by Hepner et al who designed it to study Asian societies was used to understand how Indian mothers coped.29 The instrument is made up of two parts - the first scale to assess the level of impact that traumatic events have on individuals and the level of resolution they have from these traumatic episodes. The second part of the scale examines how respondents cope with stressors in their life and how helpful various kinds of coping strategies are to them. The scale was developed to include aspects of coping common in Asian societies which included using resources of the broader family network and religion. The scales are currently being used in several Asian societies with good reports of validity. Psychological Well-Being The Hudson’s General Contentment Scale,30 a 25-item self-reported questionnaire, was designed to measure the degree of depression in clients. The scale contains many items which parallel the Beck’s Depression Inventory, a commonly used short inventory for depression, but has additional questions to provide a broader assessment of the general life satisfaction of respondents, or in other words, how content someone is with her life. This scale has been used extensively with good reports of reliability and validity. Lee, Law and Tam have administered the scale as part of a study on single mothers in Hong Kong.31

Saunders P, Naidoo Y, Griffiths M (2007) Towards New Indicators of Disadvantage: Deprivation and social exclusion in Australia Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre: University of New South Wales.


Dunst, C.J, Trivette, C.M. & Deal, A.G. (1988). Enabling and empowering families: Principles and guidelines for practice. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.


Van Horn, M. L., Bellis, J. M., & Snyder, S. W.(2001). Family Resource Scale-Revised: Psychometrics and validation of a measure of family resources in a sample of low-income families. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment,19, 54–68.


Dunst, C.J., & Leet, H.E. (1987) Measuring the adequacy of resources in households with young children. Child: Care, Health and Development, 7:111-125



Heppner, P. P., Heppner, M. J., Lee, D.-G., Wang, Y.-W., Park, H.-J., &Wang, L.-F. (2006). Development and validation of a collectivistic coping styles inventory. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 107–125.


Hudson, W. W. (1982). The clinical measurement package: A field manual. Chicago: Dorsey.


Lee, M.Y; Law, C.K. & Tam, K.K. (1999) Parenthood and life satisfaction: a comparison of single and dual parent families in Hong Kong. International Social Work, 42, 139-162.



Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Researching Single Mothers

Parenting Confidence

Interview Conduct

The Parenting Self-Efficacy scale developed by Suzuki et al was used.32 This scale integrated items deemed necessary for good parenting in both Western and Asian cultures and was thus considered useful for the current study. The original scale had 25 items. Five items which dealt with teaching children about time, value of nutritious food, exercise, the alphabet and how to stay neat and clean were not deemed too useful for this study. These items were more suitable if the study dealt only with the parenting of young children and thus were removed.

Single mothers from SINDA FSC’s financial aid database were contacted by SINDA FSC staff, asking for their interest in being part of an in-depth interview attempting to understand the challenges faced by single Indian mothers. Mothers who agreed to be a part of this study were then contacted by members of the investigator’s research team. They were once again informed about the study and assured that their participation was voluntary. They were assured that the information from the study would not be provided to their current or previous case workers in SINDA FSC. Mothers who agreed to participate in the survey arranged with the interviewer for an appropriate time for them to complete the survey at their residence.

Preference for Social Service Assistance Respondents were asked about whether a number of services would be helpful to them and their preference for the kind of agency helping them – i.e. Indian or non-Indian agency or no preference.

Qualitative Study The qualitative component of this study involved in-depth interviews with 54 single Indian mothers. The interviews attempted to tease out the subtleties of how these Indian mothers experience their circumstances and services which are meant to assist in their coping. This qualitative data was used to complement the more general patterns obtained through the surveys to provide data with high levels of validity. An important component of the qualitative data collection involved asking respondents to reflect on the services they had received as a single mother from targeted interventions such as Project Athena. Mothers were asked to provide their frank assessment of the intervention they had received.


Each interview took about an hour to complete and was conducted in English or Tamil depending on the preferred language of the participant. Participants were engaged in a conversation by the interviewer who used an interview guide to structure the conversation. Interviewers would probe and clarify the responses of the respondent and taped these conversations. The interviewers for this qualitative portion were either female Indian social workers or counsellors. All of them had current interaction with low-income families and were sensitive to the different forms of distress that they went through. Their familiarity with low-income families allowed them to build rapport easily with the clients and guide the conversation. At the same time, their lack of direct practice with Indian single mothers meant that they would be curious and would not be bound to existing stereotypes generated as a result of long-term work with this population. A $20 NTUC voucher was given to those participating in the in-depth interviews. These tokens were given to respondents as a way to acknowledge the time taken for the interview.

A purposive sampling approach was used to ensure that single mothers from different religious backgrounds (Hindu, Muslim and Christian) and different circumstances of singlehood (widowed, divorced, incarcerated husband) were included in the study. Some of the mothers had attended Project Athena, while the others were on some form of financial assistance from SINDA FSC but were not part of a targeted intervention programme.

Suzuki, S., Holloway, S. D., Yamamoto, Y., & Mindnich, J. D. (2009). Parenting self-efficacy and social support in Japan and the United States. Journal of Family Issues, 30(11), 1505-1526.




Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Profile of Study Sample


he sample for this study consisted of 168 single mothers and 273 mothers from intact families who were served by SINDA FSC. Of the 441 mothers in the study, 75% indicated their sub-ethnic group as Tamil, a proportion fairly similar for both groups (see Figure 1). The median age for both single mothers and mothers from intact families was 43 years. Most mothers in our sample received some form of education with 77% of the overall sample reporting completing at least a primary school education. However, a larger proportion of single mothers had no formal education (23%) as compared to mothers from intact families (17%) (see Table 1). Figure 1 - Ethnic Group of Respondents ETHNIC GROUP 100 77.2

80 60



20 0 Tamil Percentage of Single Families (%) (n=168)

A larger proportion of the mothers in the sample were Hindu (52% of the overall sample, 58% of single mothers and 48% of mothers from intact families). About a third of the sample classified their religion as Islam (36% of overall sample, 30% of single mothers and 40% of mothers from intact families) (see Table 2). Table 2 - Religious Affiliation of Respondents Percentage of Single Mothers (%) (n=168)

Percentage of Intact Mothers (%) (n=273)







Protestant-Other Christian






Roman Catholic









More than half (56%) of the mothers in the overall sample had 2 or fewer children. Single mothers (72.1%) were more likely to be in this category compared to mothers from the intact family subsample (45.8%). Among those who had 4 or more children, the proportion of single mothers who had such family sizes was discernibly smaller (7.8%) compared to mothers from intact families (19.l%) (see Figure 2). In general, it appears that single mothers tend to have fewer children than mothers from intact families.



Researching Single Mothers

Others Percentage of Intact Families (%) (n=273)

Figure 2 - Proportion of Respondents by Number of Children NUMBER OF CHILDREN 45



Table 1 - Educational Attainment of Respondents

35 30


Percentage of Single Mothers (%) (n=168)

Percentage of Intact Mothers (%) (n=273)


No formal qualification/lower primary




Completed primary school education (PSLE)




Some secondary school education




Completed GCE ‘N’ levels/vocational institute VITB



Completed GCE ‘O’ levels



Completed GCE ‘A’ levels



Polytechnic diploma



Other diploma/qualification awarded by professional bodies



University degree





30.4 19.0








Percentage of Single Mothers (%) (n=168)



Percentage of Intact Mothers (%) (n=273)


Single mothers tended to be financially poorer than mothers from intact families as indicated by a larger proportion (62%) of them having a per capita income of less than S$300, as compared to 42.0% of mothers from intact families. This is further supported by data showing that the median total family income for single mothers was substantially lower at S$700 as compared to S$1500 for mothers from intact families. The median per capita income of single mothers was S$220 while it was S$325 for mothers from intact families (see Figure 3). Figure 3 - Respondents by Per Capita and Total Family Income INCOME


Per Capita Income (in S$)



Total Family Income (in S$)

700 0




Median – Intact Mothers (n=273)






Median – Single Mothers (n=168)

Eleven per cent of the Indian single mothers in this study reported that they had an unwed pregnancy. About half of them (52%) subsequently married the father of their child. When asked why the father of the child was not living with them currently, the most common reason given was a divorce or the ending of the relationship (51%), death of the child’s father (26%), separation (10%) and incarceration (5%) (Figure 4). Figure 4 - Respondents by Reasons for Child’s Father’s Absence REASONS FOR CHILD”S FATHER”S ABSENCE 60 50


40 26.2

30 20




0 Divorce/relationship ended






Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Challenges of Indian Single Mothers in Singapore


his section provides details on the challenges faced by low-income Indian single mothers. Data obtained from 168 low-income Indian single mothers and 273 low-income Indian mothers from household where the husband was coresident (intact families), provides a comparison of the two groups. The adequacy of single mothers’ social support and resources are in a number of dimensions, their experiences of traumatic events and how they coped with them, their psychological well-being and confidence in parenting is presented. Their views on the relative helpfulness of various types of social services to their needs are also discussed.


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Social Support

their disappointment with the mother over their choice of partner or their decision to leave the relationship. This constant criticism might have kept many Indian single mothers from sharing their problems openly with their families and thus feel less supported.


ewer single mothers as compared to mothers from intact families rated as helpful their spouses or ex-spouses, their children’s father’s parents or relatives and volunteers in assisting them with their parenting responsibilities. However, more single mothers (48%) as compared to their married counterparts (31%) felt that the support given to them by their own parents was helpful (see Table 3). Table 3 - Proportion of Single Mothers (n=168) and Intact Mothers (n=273) who Report Source Helpfulness in their Parenting Responsibilities Single (%)

Intact (%)

Your parents



Your relatives



Your spouse/ex-spouse



Child’s father’s parents/relatives









Professional agencies



Volunteers School system





This is an expected finding since many single mothers had to move in with their parents when their relationship terminated with the child’s father. Mothers from intact families might live away from their parents and have greater recourse to their husband’s help for parenting duties. When asked about the availability of social support, about half of the single mothers reported such availability on a number of dimensions of support. Only 42% of the Indian single mothers had someone to turn to when they needed urgent financial help, 45% of them acknowledged that they had recourse to urgent help to take care of their children, and a few more (48%) that they had someone who could take over household responsibilities if they were not able to do so. Between 45% to 50% of the sample had someone who could provide them advice on personal or family matters including how to deal with their children. Statistical analysis showed that there were little significant differences between single mother and mothers from intact families in terms of the availability of social support except for obtaining advice for personal problems (see Table 4). The qualitative study suggested that mothers in the Indian community looked to their families for advice on their personal problems. A number of single mothers reported that while their own families assisted in many ways, they often indicated


Challenges of Indian Single Mothers in Singapore

Table 4 - Quality of Social Support Network Support Function Required

Availability of Support (%) Single (n=168)

Intact (n=273)

Need urgent financial help



Need advice on family problems



Need advice on personal problems



Need urgent help with taking care of children



Need advice on dealing with children



Take over household responsibilities if you are not able to do this



The quantity of respondents’ social support network was measured based on the number of close family members and close friends they had. About 30% of single mothers reported that they had no close family members while 36% claimed they had no close friends. However these results were not too different when compared to other low income Indian mothers from intact families (see Table 5). Table 5 - Quantity of Social Support Network - Single Mothers (n=168) and Intact Mothers (n=273) Network

Close Family (%)

Close Friends (%)


29.6 (24.9)

36.2 (35.1)


16.7 (18.8)

22.7 (19.8)


34.0 (37.2)

25.8 (29.9)


19.8 (19.2)

15.3 (15.3)


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Resource Adequacy

Challenges of Indian Single Mothers in Singapore

Table 7 - Proportion of Single Mothers and Intact Mothers Meeting Resource Adequacy for “Beyond Basic Needs”


etween 32% to 38% of the Indian single mother sample reported that their needs for money to pay for necessities, children’s educational needs, monthly utility and conservancy bills and medical care for their family, were never or seldom met. About a quarter of the sample also claimed that they had inadequate housing and clothing. It was particularly disconcerting that almost 14% of Indian single mothers reported that they did not have access to three meals a day for their family (see Table 6). Table 6 - Proportion of Single Mothers (n=167) and Intact Mothers (n=272) Meeting Resource Adequacy for Basic Needs Never/seldom met (%)

Met sometimes (%)

Met always/ Most of the Time (%)

Food for 3 meals a day

13.8 (4.4)

19.8 (17.6)

66.5 (77.9)


28.4 (13.0)

10.5 (12.2)

61.1 (74.8)

Money to buy necessities

33.9 (20.6)

35.8 (35.3)

30.3 (44.1)

Enough clothes for your family

25.3 (16.7)

28.3 (23.3)

46.4 (60.0)

Money to pay monthly utility and conservancy bills

38.4 (25.9)

28.7 (31.9)

32.9 (42.2)

Medical care for your family

32.3 (25.9)

28.6 (26.7)

39.1 (47.4)

Telephone or mobile phone

17.4 (13.1)

19.4 (21.4)

63.2 (65.5)

Money to buy items for children’s educational needs

36.8 (26.8)

34.4 (33.0)

28.8 (40.2)

Beyond their basic needs, more than half of the Indian single mothers in the study were not able to fund basic birthday celebrations for their children or fulfil religious obligations. Around 83% of the single mothers in this study never or seldom had savings of at least $500 (see Table 7). More of the single mothers however had fulfilled their needs for simple furnishing in the home and important household appliances with between 58% and 69% of them acknowledging this. The difference is probably accounted for by the fact that several welfare agencies address their clients’ needs for household furnishing with relative ease. Few social service providers however can justify providing finances for their beneficiaries to celebrate special occasions.


Never/ seldom met (%)

Met sometimes (%)

Met always/ Most of the Time (%)

Additional medical supplies such as spectacles

46.4 (34.0)

24.5 (26.6)

29.1 (39.3)

Toys/entertainment gadgets for your child(ren)

61.9 (49.1)

19.4 (17.0)

18.7 (33.9)

Money to buy things for yourself

67.5 (58.2)

15.6 (14.1)

16.9 (27.8)

Money for family entertainment

65.5 (56.1)

14.5 (18.6)

20.0 (25.4)

Savings of $500

83.3 (78.6)

6.2 (5.3)

10.5 (16.2)

Money for basic celebration of festivals

56.9 (36.9)

28.1 (30.6)

15.0 (32.5)

Money for basic birthday celebration for child(ren)

73.0 (53.9)

16.6 (23.6)

10.4 (22.5)

Money to fufill religious obligations

57.9 (37.6)

17.1 (20.9)

25.0 (41.4)

Besides material resources, Indian single mothers indicated that they lacked time to meet their own personal needs. Half of the single mothers sample reported never or seldom having time to get enough sleep while more than three-quarters of the sample did not have time to socialise and make new friends (see Table 8). When compared to mothers from intact families, single mothers had significantly fewer resources. Their lack of resources could certainly act as stressors such as when there was inadequate food or housing for their family or when they did not have enough time to rest. Their inability to meet some other needs such as those related to basic celebrations could increase both their and their children’s sense of deprivation. A lack of time to make friends could further exclude them from wider society and the potential resources that such interactions can bring. Table 8 - Proportion of Single Mothers and Intact Mothers Meeting Resource Adequacy for Time for Oneself Never/ seldom met (%)

Met sometimes (%)

Met always/ Most of the Time (%)

Time to get enough sleep/rest

47.9 (27.7)

21.8 (19.6)

30.3 (52.8)

Time to be by yourself

40.2 (32.6)

17.1 (15.4)

42.7 (52.1)

Time to be with close friend9s)

60.8 (59.6)

19.6 (17.6)

19.6 (22.7)

Time to socialise and make new friends

76.6 (68.1)

11.7 (10.0)

11.7 (21.9)

Time to keep in shape and look nice

63.5 (54.1)

18.2 (16.2)

18.2 (29.7)


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Experiences of Trauma and its Effect


any Indian single mothers had experienced a traumatic event in the past. Such traumatic events were often associated with abusive marital relationships. A sizeable proportion of these mothers related in the course of the qualitative interviews their ex-husbands drunkenness and the violence that ensued. The trauma had far reaching effects – during the period it occurred, between 73% to 87% of Indian single mothers reported that the trauma caused major interference to their school or work, interpersonal relationships, thinking and judgment, mood and self-esteem (see Table 9). Table 9 - Trauma Impact (Then) Single Mothers (n=151) and Intact Mothers (n=166) No or little interference

Moderate interference

A lot or major interference

School or work

20.0 (29.1)

5.7 (12.8)

74.3 (58.1)

Interpersonal relationships

19.9 (31.9)

7.3 (10.8)

72.8 (57.2)

Thinking and judgment

8.6 (17.5)

7.9 (17.5)

83.4 (65.1)


6.6 (10.8)

6.6 (12.7)

86.8 (76.5)

Self esteem

15.8 (24.1)

7.9 (17.5)

76.3 (58.4)

About a third of the Indian single mothers in this study reported that the trauma continued to have a lot or major interference in many aspects of their lives. About 80% of single mothers expressed that they were still disturbed by the memory related to the trauma and two thirds of the sample reported that their trauma had not completed resolved (see Table 10). Table 10 - Trauma Impact (Now), Single Mothers (n=149) and Intact Mothers (n=166)


No or little interference

Moderate interference

A lot or major interference

School or work

51.8 (66.2)

15.8 (15.9)

32.4 (17.9)

Interpersonal relationships

49.0 (67.5)

17.4 (14.5)

33.6 (18.1)

Thinking and judgment

44.7 (53.6)

20.7 (21.7)

34.7 (24.7)


42.4 (51.8)

23.2 (20.7)

34.4 (27.4)

Self esteem

48.3 (58.9)

18.5 (15.0)

33.1 (22.1)

Indian single mothers were significantly more affected by traumatic events in their lives than Indian mothers from intact families. As compared to mothers from intact families, single mothers experienced a greater degree of traumatic interference both in the past and in the present, and also experienced less resolution of the trauma.

Challenges of Indian Single Mothers in Singapore



eligious coping strategies seemed to be common among the Indian single mothers in this study. More than 70% of the mothers found the following three religious coping strategies very helpful in dealing with stressful situations: using prayer or other religious rituals, finding guidance from religion and finding comfort from religion. A common religious strategy often associated with positive mental health outcomes – thinking about the meaning of the trauma from the perspective of religious beliefs- was not as strongly endorsed with 22% of Indian single mothers reporting that they had never used such a technique (see Table 11). Table 11 - Proportion Using Aspects of Religious Coping for Single Mothers (n=142) and Intact Mothers (n=202) Never used Not useful (%) (%)

Quite Very useful useful (%) (%)

Through prayers or other religious rituals

9.9 (4.0)

7.7 (3.5)

6.3 (7.0)

76.1 (85.6)

Found guidance from my religion

15.5 (8.5)

6.3 (7.0)

4.9 (6.0)

73.2 (78.6)

Found comfort from my religion or spirituality

14.0 (5.5)

7.0 (4.5)

7.7 (7.0)

71.3 (83.1)

Thought about the meaning of the trauma from the perspectives of my religious beliefs

21.7 (19.3)

8.4 (4.0)

10.5 (12.4)

59.4 (64.4)

Besides using religious coping strategies, about 55% to 60% of the Indian single mothers found reappraisal techniques very helpful in dealing with their difficulties. About 66% of them tried to assure themselves that good comes after overcoming a bad situation, 61% told themselves that they could make their plans and ideas work while 59% coped by reassuring themselves that the trauma served an important purpose in their lives (see Table 12). Table 12 - Proportion Using Aspects of Reappraisal Coping for Single Mothers (n=142) and Intact Mothers (n=202) Never used Not useful (%) (%)

Quite Very useful useful (%) (%)

Believed that I would grow from survivng the traumatic event

12.1 (9.0)

15.6 (10.0)

17.0 (10.4)

55.3 (70.6)

Analysing my feelings provided me with ideas about how to proceed

14.7 (18.7)

16.1 (10.3)

11.9 (14.3)

57.3 (56.7)

Told myself that I could think of effective ideas

14.0 (13.3)

18.2 (9.9)

11.2 (14.3)

56.6 (62.6)

Realised that often good comes after overcoming bad situations

13.3 (12.3)

11.2 (8.9)

9.1 (7.9)

66.4 (70.9)

Realised that the trauma served as an important purpose in my life

19.3 (17.3)

10.0 (12.4)

11.4 (10.9)

59.3 (59.4)

Told myself that I could make my plans and ideas work

18.9 (15.3)

11.9 (8.4)

8.4 (9.4)

60.8 (67.0)


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Challenges of Indian Single Mothers in Singapore

Drawing support from family to cope with their trauma was very helpful for about half of the respondents. Fifty seven per cent of single mothers reported following the guidance of their elders and 56% of single mothers reported placing their trust in their elders’ traditional wisdom of how to cope. About half found sharing their feelings with their family as very helpful and about 46% believed that they could get help from their family resources (see Table 13).

Only about 29% of the Indian single mothers in the study acknowledged that actively seeking advice from professionals such as counsellors and social workers was quite or very useful to them when they went through their crisis. In fact, 63% of the single mothers in this sample had never actively used such services when they were experiencing crisis. This certainly indicates the general unease among Indian single mothers to engage formal services for their psychological needs (see Table 15).

Table 13 - Proportion Using Aspects of Family Coping for Single Mothers (n=142) and Intact Mothers (n=202)

Table 15. Proportion Using Aspects of Professional Help Seeking Coping for Single Mothers (n=142) and Intact Mothers (n=202)

Never used (%)

Not useful (%)

Quite Very useful useful (%) (%)

Followed the guidance of my elders (e.g., parents, older realtives)

26.1 (19.4)

16.9 (12.9)

7.0 (6.5)

50.0 (61.2)

Placed trust in my elders’ traditional wisdom to cope with the trauma

31.0 (21.0)

13.4 (15.5)

13.4 (10.0)

42.3 (53.5)

Knew that I could ask assistance from my family increased my confidence

30.8 (21.8)

18.2 (14.9)

4.9 (11.4)

46.2 (52.0)

Through family assistance and support

18.3 (7.4)

18.3 (12.8)

9.9 (8.9)

53.5 (70.9)

Shared my feelings with my family

23.1 (12.4)

19.6 (11.9)

6.3 (7.9)

51.0 (67.8)

The coping strategies that received the least endorsement from Indian single mothers were: saving face by not telling anyone, pretending to be okay and eating in excess (or not eating) with about 20% of the mothers reporting these strategies as very helpful. While only a small proportion of the sample used these strategies, the fact that some mothers adopted them is a cause for concern since these coping styles do not allow mothers to obtain adequate help and instead increase their physical and mental health risks (see Table 14). Table 14 - Proportion Using Avoidance/Social Withdrawal Coping Strategies for Single Mothers among (n=162) & Intact Mothers (n=209) Never used (%)


Not useful (%)

Quite Very useful useful (%) (%)

Saved face by not telling anyone

62.1 (47.7)

17.9 (22.1)

5.0 (11.1)

15.0 (19.1)

Pretended to be OK

44.7 (44.5)

22.0 (18.5)

14.2 (12.5)

19.1 (24.5)

Avoided facing my pain for a short time to resolve the trauma in the long run

16.3 (19.2)

24.1 (13.8)

16.3 (22.7)

43.3 (43.3)

To save face, only thought about the problem by myself

48.6 (43.3)

16.9 (19.4)

12.0 (13.4)

22.5 (23.9)

Kept my feelings within myself in order not to worry my parents

41.3 (44.3)

16.8 (13.8)

9.8 (10.3)

32.2 (31.5)

Ate in excess (or not eating)

48.6 (56.4)

20.4 (19.8)

9.2 (9.4)

21.8 (14.4)

Never used (%)

Not useful (%)

Quite Very useful useful (%) (%)

Actively sought advice from professionals, (e.g., counsellors, social workers, psychiatrists)

62.9 (71.3)

7.7 (4.5)

2.1 (5.4)

27.3 (18.8)

Saved face by seeking advice from a professional (e.g., counsellors, social workers, psychiatrists) I did not know personally

61.5 (68.5)

12.6 (6.4)

4.9 (3.0)

21.0 (22.2)

A comparison of the coping strategies used by the two subsamples suggests that single mothers and mothers from intact families differ in the degree of reliance on certain coping strategies. On average, single mothers tended to rely less on acceptance and reappraisal strategies, family support and religious coping than mothers from intact families. While there is no direct evidence for this, it is possible to assume that some single mothers could not find comfort and solace in turning to their family or religious community as they feel that these agents will continue to berate them for not meeting culturally prescribed expectations. Single mothers tended to “save face by not telling anyone” more than mothers from intact families, which can be expected given that single parenthood is still associated with stigma in contemporary Singapore society. Interestingly though, more single mothers prefer to seek advice from professionals and people unknown to them in order to “save face”. This difference between single mothers and those from intact families confirms that there is a significant portion of single mothers who because of their predicament have to find help outside their family context.


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Psychological Well-Being


ingle mothers appeared to experience more depressive symptoms than mothers from intact families. Around 65% of Indian single mothers compared to 50% of mothers from intact families met the criteria for clinical depression. Nearly 44% of Indian single mothers reported that they did not sleep well at night while 34% of them reported feeling powerless to do anything about their lives. About a third of the mothers reported feeling blue often with 35% experiencing crying spells and a similar proportion being restless. Close to 36% of single mothers also indicated that they often felt that they had a hard time getting started on things that they needed to do (see Table 16.1 and Table 16.2).

Table 16.1 - Proportion of Single Mothers (n=168) and Intact Mothers (n=273) on Items from the General Contentment Scale Items

Rarely (%)

Sometimes (%)

I feel powerless to do anything about my life

45.5 (58.1)

21.0 (17.0)

Challenges of Indian Single Mothers in Singapore

Despite reporting these depressive symptoms, more than three quarters of these Indian single mothers continued to find enjoyment in being with people and having a busy and active life. They also found some meaning in life with 79% of them feeling they were needed and a similar proportion feeling appreciated by others (Table 16.3). It was clear that although Indian single mothers had many stressors to deal with and also fewer resources, they were not intentionally isolating themselves from people. In fact they looked forward to relieving their stress through social interactions. Table 16.3 - Proportion of Single Mothers (n=168) and Intact Mothers (n=273) on Items from General Contentment Scale Items

33.5 (24.8)

I feel blue

41.0 (50.9)

20.5 (25.7)

38.6 (23.4)

I am restless and can’t keep still

48.2 (56.3)

17.1 (13.8)

34.8 (29.9)

I have crying spells

50.6 (59.2)

14.0 (16.5)

35.4 (24.3)

I have a hard time getting started on things that I need to do

45.2 (54.9)

18.7 (19.3)

36.1 (25.8)

I feel downhearted

48.8 (55.1)

22.9 (17.6)

28.3 (27.3)

I feel that my situation is hopeless

66.7 (68.8)

14.5 (13.2)

18.8 (18.0)

Sometimes (%)

Often (%)

I feel that I am needed

12.2 (8.6)

8.5 (4.5)

79.3 (86.9)

I feel that I am appreciated by others

10.9 (10.2)

11.5 (9.4)

77.5 (80.7)

9.7 (8.3)

10.3 (9.4)

80.0 (82.3)

12.8 (13.1)

11.6 (10.4)

75.6 (75.6)

I enjoy being active and busy

Often (%)

Rarely (%)

I enjoy being with other people

Table 16.2 - Proportion of Single Mothers (n=168) and Intact Mothers (n=273) on Items from the General Contentment Scale Items


Rarely (%)

Sometimes (%)

Often (%)

I do not sleep well at night

37.6 (48.9)

18.8 (10.1)

43.6 (41.0)

I feel downtrodden (pushed down)

52.8 (67.5)

12.9 (14.7)

34.4 (17.7)

I am irritable

57.3 (62.0)

17.1 (18.0)

25.6 (19.9)

I get upset easily

45.1 (53.4)

18.9 (18.0)

36.0 (28.6)

It is hard for me to have a good time.

42.4 (51.9)

16.4 (14.4)

41.2 (33.7)


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers


Challenges of Indian Single Mothers in Singapore

Table 17.2 - Proportion of Single Mothers (n=152) and Intact Mothers (n=235) on Items from the Parenting Self-Efficacy Scale


ost Indian single mothers reported above average confidence in their parenting skills. Between 55% to 94% of them reported being confident or very confident over a range of issues such as praising their children, teaching them to respect adults, and disciplining them firmly when they misbehaved The top three skills Indian single mothers rated themselves highly on were— teaching their children to respect adults, teaching their children to avoid swearing or using rude language and setting a good example by being polite and respectful of others. Over 92% of these mothers rated themselves as confident in these parenting tasks (see Table 17.1 and Table 17.2). Indian single mothers reported the least confidence in controlling their feelings in front of their children and avoiding overreacting when their children misbehaved. Only 55% and 57% rated themselves as confident in these matters (see Table 17.1). This highlights that the home environments of these Indian single mothers’ are likely to be tense with frequent and intense emotional outbursts. It may also be the case that the unresolved trauma that some mothers faced had a continued effect in this aspect of their emotional management.

Item Teach your child to respect adults

Confident/ Not/Just Somewhat Very Confident (%) Confident (%) Confident (%) 0 (0)

4.0 (0.9)

96.0 (99.1)

0.7 (0.4)

13.4 (4.3)

85.9 (95.3)

0 (0.4)

9.5 (3.4)

90.5 (96.6)

0.7 (0.4)

8.8 (3.0)

90.5 (96.6)

0 (0)

5.4 (0.9)

94.6 (99.1)

Teach your child to avoid bothering others

0.7 (0)

6.1 (1.3)

93.2 (98.7)

Teach your child to do things independently

0 (0.9)

10.1 (7.3)

89.9 (91.8)

Teach your child how to get along with other children

1.4 (0)

5.4 (4.7)

93.2 (95.3)

Teach your child to avoid swearing or other rude language

1.4 (0.4)

2.0 (2.6)

96.6 (97.0)

Teach your child to be interesting in learning new things

2.0 (0.9)

9.5 (4.3)

88.5 (94.8)

Teach your child to express thoughts clearly Teach your child to continue trying even when something is difficult Teach your child to figure out what behaviour is called for in different settings Teach your child to be polite (e.g. say “please” and “thank you”)

Table 17.1 - Proportion of Single Mothers (n=152) and Intact Mothers (n=235) on Items from the Parenting Self-Efficacy Scale Item Listen to your child


Confident/ Not/Just Somewhat Very Confident (%) Confident (%) Confident (%) 2.7 (0)

18.1 (15.7)

79.2 (84.3)

Understand your child's feelings

3.4 (0.9)

15.5 (14.0)

81.1 (81.5)

Control your emotions in front of your child

8.1 (8.9)

35.1 (32.3)

56.8 (58.7)

Avoid overreacting when your child misbehaves

8.1 (10.3)

32.4 (32.5)

59.5 (57.3)

Create a peaceful, happy home

2.7 (2.1)

12.8 (12.3)

84.6 (85.5)

Set a good example by being polite and respectful of others

1.4 (0.4)

4.1 (5.1)

94.6 (94.4)

Explain things so your child will understand

2.7 (0)

7.4 (6.9)

89.9 (93.1)

Praise your child when he or she does well

1.3 (0)

4.7 (3.8)

94.0 (96.2)

Discipline your child firmly when he or she misbehaves

1.3 (0.4)

7.4 (8.2)

91.3 (91.4)

Let your child know you love him or her

3.4 (3.4)

6.7 (6.4)

89.9 (90.2)


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Perception of Helpfulness & Preferences of Social Service Provider


ndian single mothers in this study were asked to rate the relative helpfulness of a number of social services which were commonly provided by welfare agencies. Less than half rated helpful those services that primarily focused on addressing their emotional, psychological and employment needs. Only 39% of the sample found helpful personal counselling directed at working through their emotional pain while 46% found befriending support helpful. Financial help to set up a small business or to practise a trade was rated helpful by 42% of the Indian single mothers (see Table 18.1). These figures are in contrast to the over 75% of Indian single mothers who rated helpful services that addressed the material and social needs of the family as a whole. Eighty-six per cent found helpful additional financial help for their school going children and 80% regarded additional finances to pay utility bills. Seventy-seven per cent of the sample rated as helpful programmes that help them and their families enjoy themselves (see Table 18.2).

Table 18.1 - Respondents’ Belief in Usefulness of Interventions & Preferences for Agency Type among Single Mothers (n=162) & Intact Mothers (n=209) Mean Scores

Preference for Indian agency (%)

Highly subsidised personal tuition for children

4.26 (4.49)

13.5 (23.9)

Enrichment programmes for your children to learn things

4.07 (4.45)

9.4 (14.2)

Personal counselling to help you work through emotional pain

2.95 (2.61)



23.3 (26.2)

Volunteers/befrienders to offer support

3.12 (3.02)

9.6 (19.6)

A computer in your home

3.92 (3.80)

11.4 (13.2)

Challenges of Indian Single Mothers in Singapore

Table 18.2 - Respondents’ Belief in Usefulness of Interventions & Preferences for Agency Type among Single Mothers (n=162) & Intact Mothers (n=209) Mean Scores

Preference for Indian agency (%)

Additional finances to pay utilities

4.45 (4.45)

4.5 (8.4)

More financial help for your school-going children

4.65 (4.61)

8.4 (9.1)

Programmes that help you and your family enjoy yourselves as a family

4.35 (4.60)

12.8 (20.2)

Programmes that help you to upgrate your communication and personal skills

4.13 (3.99)

10.3 (17.1)

Financial help to set up a small business or to practice a trade

2.99 (3.25)

9.6 (11.4)


Indian single mothers did not seem to have much preference for Indian social service agencies over other agencies in the provision of services. Less than a quarter of the sample indicated a preference for an Indian agency for all types of social service help listed in the study. These included financial aid, tuition assistance for children as well as counselling and emotional and social support for them and their children. This trend was especially true for financial aid provision where only 5% of mothers indicated a preference for an Indian agency for the provision of money for utilities, 8% of mothers for financial help for their school-going children and 10% of them for financial help to set up a small business or practise a trade (see Table 18.1 and Table 18.2) While still a comparatively small number, there were more mothers from intact families compared to single mothers who held a preference for an Indian social service agency. This is probably explained by the fact that single mothers who have fewer resources than mothers from intact families, are more likely to be open to receiving assistance from any agency (Indian or non-Indian) who is willing to help them. It is also likely because of the dire straits they find themselves in, that Indian single mothers have explored multiple help options in the past, and thus are less concerned about who provides the service. Where the preference for an Indian agency is more pronounced is in the provision of counselling. Nearly a quarter of the Indian single mother respondents indicated such a preference. Perhaps this is due to the perception that counsellors of a similar culture might be more cognisant of the issues that affect these mothers.


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Summary 1.

Indian single mothers reported little help for their parenting duties from ex-spouses, relatives, friends and community and educational services.


The majority of Indian single mothers had limited access to advice for their personal or family problems and did not have someone to take over their parenting responsibilities if they were not able to do them.


About a third of Indian single mothers had no close family members or close friends.


Indian single mothers had few resources especially those which allowed them to live above subsistence levels. They were not likely to have any savings and were not able to celebrate their children’s birthdays or observe festivals.


Indian single mothers reported greater levels of trauma from events in the past. About a third claimed that the trauma continued to interfere with their mood, self-esteem, judgment, interpersonal relationships and work.


Religious coping strategies were common among Indian single mothers. They also utilised family support in the face of difficulties and tried to cognitively reappraise the situations. A much smaller proportion sought help from professional sources when they had to deal with major difficulties.


About a third of Indian single mothers reported that they often faced depressive symptoms.


Indian single mothers expressed that they were confident about most aspects of parenting except when dealing with their emotional outbursts.


Social service interventions that targeted the needs of the entire family were more valued by an Indian single mother population compared to interventions which tried to help them cope with their psychological or employment concerns.

Challenges of Indian Single Mothers in Singapore

Implications and Conclusions


t is apparent that at least a portion of Indian single mothers, because of their limited access to resources and social support and their unresolved trauma experiences, were depressed. Their lack of psychological wellbeing had an effect on their capability to maintain employment and thus their ability to be self-reliant. It is also likely that they had greater difficulties with parenting especially not over-reacting when their children misbehaved and managing their emotions in front of them. Despite their psychological pressures and the impact of previous trauma they were unlikely to seek professional help. They were more open to social service interventions which prioritised providing practical help for their entire family. It is important for social service providers, if they are to adequately help these Indian single mothers find greater resolution to their traumatic experiences and improve their psychological well-being, to first consider their practical needs. Addressing the lack of resources that these mothers face might be an important first step before additional intervention.

10. In general, Indian single mothers had no preference for Indian social

service agencies over those which were for the general population. However there were still a significant proportion of mothers who preferred an Indian agency for personal counselling services.



Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

A snapshot of programmes

Project Athena Mothers: A snapshot of programmes

Families celebrating Children’s Day at Downtown East

Moneywise Workshop – Mothers learning budgeting skills Mothers learning basic IT Skills

Health Checkup for Mothers – X-ray and mammogram

Mothers completing evaluation forms after a workshop 38

Mothers cutting the cake at the Mother’s Day Celebrations in 2011

President of SINDA, Ms Indranee Rajah and Board of Trustees members visit a Women Empowerment session at Radin Mas Community Centre

Chairman of SINDA, DPM Tharman and other guests view the Value-Based Parenting session at SINDA


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Project Athena Children: A snapshot of programmes

A snapshot of programmes

Mother-Child Bonding Activities Families drawing up their “Coat of Arms” after completing 27 hours of Value-Based Parenting

Children displaying their artistic potential during a speech and drama

Children enjoying carnival games during a Mother’s Day Celebration

A family presenting their “Coat of Arms” Children making Mother’s Day cards Athena children participating in a Lego Robotics competition with their mentor

Mother’s Day Celebrations at Kampong Temasek at Johor Bahru Children’s Day Celebration at Universal Studio


Children with SINDA’s Board of Trustees and Executive Committee members after their speech and drama class at Radin Mas Community Centre



Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena


his section presents the rationale, programme theory and design of Project Athena. The benefits that participants received from this intervention are discussed using data from a qualitative study. A case study illustrates how Project Athena comprehensively addresses the needs of single mothers. Guidelines for practice with Indian single mothers are also provided.



Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Project Athena – Targeted Intervention for Indian Single Mothers Background


ver the years, SINDA Family Service Centre (SFSC) observed that a large number of clients seeking help at the centre were single mothers staying island-wide. Comparatively fewer Indian single mothers were seeking help at regional FSCs. In 2009, SINDA FSC embarked on Project Athena, a targeted programme to assist Indian single mothers who faced significant financial, social and emotional challenges in bringing up their children by themselves. This complemented the existing casework and counselling framework which managed each family served by the centre.

Objectives Project Athena sought to empower and build confidence among single mothers and move them towards financial independence and effective parenting. At the same time, the social, character and academic development of children in these families was attended to. Ultimately the programme facilitated resilience building in these single-parent families.

Target Group Project Athena was an intervention that was tailored to meet the needs of families, who met defined criteria. Families eligible for the programme had a single mother between twenty to fifty years of age who had at least one child aged between 4 and 12. Single motherhood was defined broadly to include mothers who had been unwed, divorced, legally separated, widowed, or whose husbands were incarcerated and serving long sentences. Eligible families were in the low-income bracket with a per capita income of less than $450 monthly. Either the mother or child was to be of Indian origin.


Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena

Programme Theory Project Athena was designed based on a keen understanding of the challenges faced by Indian single mothers. These often included the high levels of stress they faced in bringing up their children singlehandedly. In the face of cultural and social stigmatisation from those within their community, they had limited access to social support. Indian single mothers were often in a quandary of being employed, so as to ensure adequate finances for their children and their concerns of providing adequate care for their young children, a value that was ingrained in them since childhood. The need to attend to their children’s needs was further accentuated when mothers felt that their children had already sustained substantial trauma as a result of an abusive partner. In the face of limited resources, poor social support and the experience of trauma, single mothers were likely to have lower levels of self-esteem and mastery and increased psychological distress when compared to women of similar socioeconomic statuses with intact families. The lack of education among many Indian single mothers contributed to a sense of helplessness in negotiating social welfare or legal systems. Without such intervention though, mothers became isolated and depressed and unable to care for their children. This had substantial ramification for children who may grow up emotionally traumatized and increased their chances of being locked into a perpetual cycle of poverty and violence. The aim of a structured programme was to first ensure early intervention for these women and their children, and to identify possible risk factors which may have impeded their adaptive development. By providing group-based intervention, Indian single mothers could find a community where they would not feel stigmatised and therefore, become more open to disclose their concerns. The group setting also allowed for the development of social support among these mothers. Through assistance with education and various structured programs to build skills, children supported by the program were encouraged to concentrate on their studies and become successful, productive adults with healthy values. The family-based approach placed a great deal of importance on parentchild bonding and building a cohesive and resilient family unit which would be able to withstand the challenges of life.


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Theoretical Framework Used in Designing Project Athena Several established social psychological theories informed the design of Project Athena besides what staff and volunteers had observed. These theories when applied, clarified how change was possible for low-income Indian single mothers.

Ecological Systems Theory The Ecological Systems theory locates the individual’s development within the structure of his environment33. A number of agencies impact the individual – the family, peer group, educational and religious institutions and neighbourhood. How individuals relate to these and other groups and the connection between them and the broader culture have an impact on the individual’s experience and well-being. As such it was important for Project Athena to engage both the single mother and her children, as well as other care-givers in the family system. Case workers were also made cognisant of how interactions with employers, social service providers, educational and religious institutions and the cultural world of the single mother impacted her experience of single motherhood. Project Athena, then attempted to intervene at as many levels as possible in the single mother’s life.

Feminist Theory The Feminist paradigm broadly focuses on the effects of subordination and suppression on women’s well-being34. It locates such subordination in a patriarchal culture which exerts its authority over women’s bodies and their decision making processes. Feminist theorists call for greater voice for women within society. Project Athena uses this feminist paradigm, not in advocating for greater rights for women or the removal of patriarchal systems but in empowering single mothers by educating them of their right to share equity in societal opportunities alongside men. Within the confines of popular Indian culture which sometimes seems to license the physical abuse of women, Project Athena educates single mothers that such violence is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Interventions as part of Project Athena allow women to give voice to such violence and other forms of subordination and find ways to help women cope with such trauma.

Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena

Social Exchange Theory The Social Exchange Theory provides explanation to the individual’s choices and behaviour using the principles of economic rationality35. Based on this paradigm, individuals, who are assumed to be rational agents, seek to maximise their rewards while minimising their costs. The exchange that they make then forms a recurrent pattern of social interaction which both attempts to fulfil their needs but also constrains how these needs are met. In Project Athena, the social exchange theory forms the basis of helping mothers take responsibility for the decisions they have made to marry, have children and make major purchases. They also realise that the exchanges they have previously made can now constrain them especially when one partner in the exchange may also seek to maximise his rewards.

Cultural Competence Model The Cultural Competence Model calls for practice to constantly strive towards working with the cultural context of the client36. This includes cultural awareness - where practitioners examine their own biases about a population and their set of values, cultural knowledge – where practitioners educate themselves on the practices of a different group and cultural skill – where assessment is made in a culturally relevant manner. As a service provider that caters to Indians, SINDA FSC highly regards the cultural context of Indian single mothers – their belief systems about the ideal family, parenting and how they should cope. Through examining workers own presuppositions and biases, Project Athena works on customising interventions which resonate with the inner cultural world of these mothers.

Child Development Theory A range of child development theories provide a framework to understand how children develop37 and how parenting should adapt to different development stages38. Project Athena incorporates such learning among single mothers who sometimes are misinformed about how their children change biologically, psychologically and emotionally. While Project Athena does not seek to be prescriptive about how parenting should be conducted, the intervention provides input to these mothers of appropriate strategies to achieve the mother’s desired outcome for their children.

Liang, J., Krause, N. M., & Bennett, J. M. (2001). Social exchange and well-being: is giving better than receiving?. Psychology and aging, 16(3), 511-523


Campinha-Bacote, J. (2002). The process of cultural competence in the delivery of healthcare services: A model of care. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 13(3), 181-184.


Grych, J. H., & Fincham, F. D. (Eds.). (2001). Interparental conflict and child development: Theory, research and applications. Cambridge University Press.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development. In International Encyclopedia of Education, Vol. 3. Oxford: Elsevier.



Sands, R. G., & Nuccio, K. (1992). Postmodern feminist theory and social work. Social work, 37(6), 489-494.


Milevsky, A., Schlechter, M., Netter, S., & Keehn, D. (2007). Maternal and paternal parenting styles in adolescents: Associations with self-esteem, depression and life-satisfaction. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 16(1), 39-47.



Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Programme Design When Project Athena was first piloted, it was conducted at the premises of SINDA Family Service Centre. However, in an attempt to reach out to more mothers and to ensure that accessibility was not a concern, from 2010, Project Athena was carried out in a de-centralised format. Through collaborations with the Indian Activity Executive Committees (IAEC), five neighbourhood Community Centres conducted the programmes with SINDA staff coordinating the programme. SINDA also collaborated with the other Family Service Centres and crisis shelters for referrals of Indian single mothers to the program. Activities for both single mothers and their children ran concurrently to minimise the need for mothers to find child care when they attended group sessions. The Programme was conducted in two phases:

Phase 1 This phase involved working with single mothers to identify the needs of their families. Hands-on activities were used to engage these mothers, addressing their immediate needs and building rapport with facilitators and group members. Children were engaged in group activities designed to promote their social and character development.

Phase 2 This phase invited mothers to discuss the needs of their children and take part in mother-child bonding activities. Such activities allowed family members to understand and value each other more.

Dimensions of Intervention through Project Athena In an attempt to be comprehensive in helping single mothers and their families to attain resilience, Project Athena focused on several key dimensions.

Empowerment This dimension involved a series of sessions to facilitate mothers overcoming the psychological and emotional challenges of single parenthood. Women Empowerment sessions were facilitated in a highly engaging manner and in a way that seeded a sense of self-confidence among participants who often had low self-esteem because of their single parent status and other life failures. Single mothers were taught the value of positive thinking and learnt to deal with negative thinking and feelings using simple cognitivebehavioural steps. 48

Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena

As many of these mothers had undergone trauma due to previous abusive relationships and often felt psychologically stuck in their negative experiences, group work involved learning concrete ways to exercise forgiveness and transcend their emotional wounds. Mothers were also shown adaptive ways of managing their anger. The group setting intentionally promoted space for mothers to build social support among those who were in similar circumstances and engendered positive help-seeking among peers.

Employment This dimension involved the mothers enrolling in specific skills upgrading workshop or classes. As many of the Indian single mothers who were part of Project Athena had low levels of education, most of these courses were skill-based and and positioned them for employment in the fashion, health and beauty industries. Further attempts were made to find suitable skills which would allow these mothers to work from home. Tailoring skills for instance would allow these mothers to make a livelihood while ensuring that their child care responsibilities were maintained. Corporate partners who shared the vision of empowering these single mothers through employment provided such training. Besides formal skills upgrading training, participants in Project Athena also attended career talks to help them better choose appropriate employment and be ready for such work. Since 2011, as part of an initiative of Temasek Cares and rolled out by SelfHelp Groups, the employability of single mothers was handled through Project SPARK (Single Parents And Resilient Kids). Single mothers were able to pursue courses in health care, child care and security with generous subsidies from the Workforce Development Agency (WDA).

Parenting This dimension involved a series of parenting workshops which followed a Value Based Approach. The seven sessions dealt with the importance of parents in the child rearing process, elicited single mothers’ values and their vision for an ideal home, and showed them effective ways of parenting effectively. Skills which participants learnt included appropriate disciplining, listening, conflict management and anger resolution, establishing routines and rituals, and being consistent. Participants also learnt to work together with their children and other care-givers in collaborative exercises to create a conducive family environment.

Money Management This dimension involved workshops geared to help mothers become financially literate and able to effectively plan their family budget. Participants also learnt how they could tap onto appropriate funding schemes, scholarships and bursaries to ensure that their children were not left behind in their academic development. 49

Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Activities for Mothers




Therapeutic Intervention

Women Empowerment Sessions

Seven session programme which looks at building confidence and motivating mothers to gain control over their lives. Participants are also taught anger management techniques.

Project WISH

Group work for victims of domestic violence. Eight sessions which cover topics such as : ■■ Educating women on the dynamics of domestic violence. ■■ Supporting domestic violence survivors healing from the effects of trauma ■■ Supporting group participants healing of a full range of trauma ■■ Supporting survivors of abuse in developing strategies and identifying resources to help prevent them from experiencing abuse again


Value-Based Parenting

Seven session programme by ALiVE Singapore. Mothers are taught about values in parenting. Mothers also learn conflict resolution, anger management techniques and the importance of establishing rituals with their children.

Skills Upgrading

Other Parenting talks/ workshops

Ad-hoc talks and workshops on parenting styles and techniques.

Career Talks

Some topics include: ■■ Negotiating the job seeking process ■■ Choosing appropriate career/industry/role ■■ Grooming Courses

Money Management

Money WISE (Financial Literacy)


Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena

Evaluation Tools to Measure the Efficacy of the Programme A system was in place during the entire programme to measure the efficacy of Project Athena. This was done using a variety of tools. All single mothers enrolled into Project Athena provided information about their background to a case worker. This intake session provided demographic details, a personal history and the client’s current needs. An attendance record was maintained for all programmes that were part of Project Athena. The record helped case workers gauge the commitment of participants and allowed them to contact those who were not attending sessions to find out if aspects of the programme had failed to keep them motivated to attend. All participants provided data at the start of the programme. A postintervention evaluation form was used to assess the amount of change that single mothers experienced after a programme. Besides feedback from the participant, facilitators in group sessions would provide detailed feedback of issues and challenges faced by single mothers in their groups. This was corroborated with case workers’ notes to provide a holistic assessment of the progress made by clients and how Project Athena had benefited them.

Workshops which teach mothers budgeting, managing assets & liabilities and financial planning.

Activities for Children





Children on Project Athena who are sitting for major examinations such as PSLE are provided funding for Intensive Coaching. This is only applicable for students who are unable to attend SINDA’s educational programs due to extenuating circumstances.


Experiential Learning Through Art Therapy – This is a program for children whose mothers are engaged in Project WISH. These children have either been exposed to domestic violence or have experienced violence.

Enrichment/ Life skills Program

The children of this programme attend the following activities: ■■ Swimming Classes ■■ Taekwondo Classes ■■ Phonics Lessons ■■ Creative Writing Lessons ■■ Speech & Drama Lessons


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Benefits Derived by Indian Single Mothers from Project Athena


s part of an attempt to evaluate how Project Athena assisted Indian single mothers, in-depth interviews were conducted with 34 participants. Practically all the participants had positive feedback as to how the programme helped them. The benefits gained from the intervention are discussed below:

Empowerment Participants often reflected that they felt empowered as a result of attending the programme. This occurred primarily by the positive messages that single mothers received about themselves both from the session trainers and participants. The positive inspirational messages and slogans that they had come to embrace helped them become aware of their innate strengths and gave them an opportunity to commend themselves for being resilient despite the difficulties they faced. A sizeable portion of mothers battled with depressive episodes and this programme helped them reinforce positive messages while rejecting negatives. Participants also gained a sense of empowerment by meeting others who had done well despite their single mother status. These women then became role models and provided the single mothers in the programme a sense that their lives could turn for the better despite the many difficulties they were currently encountering.

Normalisation of problems Support group participants came to realise that the problems that they had encountered were not unique. They realised common patterns particularly about errant spouses that others had similarly experienced. This assured them that their problems were not the most complex and as such, a way could be found out of these challenges. Such normalisation was particularly important when these mothers had to deal with the well-meaning advice or comments from others that they had failed in keeping their spouses and children together. Knowing that other women had similar problems allowed them to reject these suggestions which tended to depress them.


Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena

Emotional Release Because trauma had often been a part of their lives, these mothers found great help in releasing their pent up anger and frustration through group activities and the mutual support of participants. While the activity allowed them to consolidate their problems and find some cathartic release for them, the ability to share their concerns among those who also experienced such problems freed them from the trap of secrecy. These women were engaged via Project WISH (Women In Self Help), a group work-based intervention for women who were victims of domestic violence.

Information Dissemination and Guidance At times, single mothers felt lost as to how to conduct themselves amidst the many stressors they faced. There were many choices that they had to regularly make as well. In this context, the psycho-educational component of Project Athena provided them a clear idea of the consequences of different courses of actions and the practical ways of handling their problems. Parenting insights and other advice relating to how to handle their former partners, how to manage their finances and how to cope with their employment were well appreciated by these mothers, many of whom had few trustworthy social networks to obtain such advice.

Considerations Although there were substantial gains as a result of intervention for the single mothers in this study, it was also apparent that the gains did not always have long term impact. While some women were able to cope better as a result of the programme, for others, it was apparent that they returned to various maladaptive patterns especially when they were faced with substantial challenges related to meeting basic living needs. Those who had lesser challenges seemed to keep the gains from Project Athena at the time the interview was conducted, which was about six months to a year after they had graduated from the programme. Several participants also discussed that they missed the social connections that the group provided. Although a few continued to stay in contact with others from the programme, the pressures of single mothering made it difficult for them to meet together. Project Athena had made this easy with the simultaneous programmes for their children during which time they were able to interact with one another. They thus wished for future gatherings after the closure of the programme to allow the mothers to reconnect and support each other.


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena

Case Studies

While she attended the programmes with other single mothers, her daughter also benefitted from the Speech and Drama lessons that SINDA FSC organised which ran concurrently with the adult classes.


Through Project SPARK, SINDA FSC was able to support Jeyanthi’s completion of the Fundamental Certificate in Early Childhood Care and Education from January until May 2013. This certification has improved her wages and allows her to qualify for further upgrading in the child care industry.

he two case studies that follow illustrate how the comprehensive help that was given through Project Athena and other related programmes of SINDA FSC were instrumental in improving the well-being of Indian single mothers.

CASE 1 – Mdm Jeyanthi Background Jeyanthi is a 28-year old single mother. She was referred to Project Athena by Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre in October 2012. At that time she was working as a Lead Teacher in a pre-school earning $1,100 monthly. A divorce left her with two children aged five and eight years old. Her unanticipated transition into single parenthood was painful and resulted in her being unable to concentrate on her work. This led to job loss and subsequent financial crisis. She subsequently moved in with her retired mother who offered to help with child care tasks while Jeyanthi went to work.

To further alleviate her financial burdens, considering that her salary is still relatively low, Jeyanthi’s school-going daughter was supported with the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund (SPMF).

Client Outcome Jeyanthi attributes her optimism about the future to the support and guidance of SINDA FSC workers. They provided her a sense that her difficulties could be managed no matter how massive they seemed to her at the crisis points of her life. She is no longer depressed, is self-confident as a single mother and claims to have become a better parent. She has come a long way since her divorce and her goal of achieving financial independence is in progress.

While her entry into the workforce gradually enabled her to regain some financial stability, there was increased medical cost due to her mother’s failing health. There was also the repayment of the home loan which added substantial burden on the family’s finances.

Actions Taken Jeyanthi agreed to attend the programmes offered by Project Athena. She started off with the Women Empowerment Programme, a seven-week-long workshop which focused on building women’s esteem and self-confidence. The support group helped her to realise that she was not alone in her struggles. She began forming an emotional support system for herself. She also realised that there were other single mothers who were in much more dire circumstances. Jeyanthi learnt to draw strength from these women’s lives. Slowly she was more hopeful about her own life. She began to attend other programmes offered by SINDA FSC and put into practice the skills that she was acquiring. As she developed a greater sense of self-confidence, she enrolled in the Value Based Parenting programme. The course provided her insights into the type of parenting which would suit the values she embraced. She developed skills in controlling her emotions, calming herself down rather than flying off the handle. She learnt to respond to situations by reviewing possible solutions, even the sound ones elicited from her children. 54


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

CASE 2 – Mdm Azilla Background Azilla is a 37-year old single mother. She had first approached SINDA FSC in January 2011. Her husband was incarcerated for drug related offences and was to be released in early 2013. Azilla was working as a Production Operator earning $850 monthly. Being the sole breadwinner at that time, she had to support her family of four young children aged 15, 5, 3 and 1 year old. Her eldest son was conceived from a previous marriage. Azilla’s elderly mother helped to look after the children while she went to work. Azilla was in dire straits. She had several arrears including a power supply bill amounting to $1706. To make matters worse, she was constantly harassed by loan sharks whom her husband had previously borrowed from. Azilla was not only stressed by her financial burdens but was also left to worry about the safety of her young children due to the threats from loan sharks. The neighbourhood in which Azilla and her family lived in had a number of drug abusers, some of whom were friends of her husband. Azilla shared that on several occasions her husband’s friends would make inappropriate passes at her and Azilla had made several police reports with regard to the harassments that plagued her. At the time, Azilla felt that her life was “shattered” and she “had nothing to live for”. She recalls feeling constantly dejected and her thoughts always revolved around the same few questions, “What have I done with my life? Will I be a good mother? How can my husband do such a thing to me?” She found that her thoughts mostly revolved around her difficult situation. She was afraid to speak to others for fear that they would ask about her family. She found herself wallowing in self-pity, regret and guilt. She was also angry when she thought about her incarcerated husband.

Action Being a single mother, Azilla was encouraged to be part of Project Athena. As part of Project Athena, she attended The Women Empowerment Programme (WEP). WEP was directed at building the confidence of these mothers and equipping them with life skills to be strong and independent single parents. Azilla mingled with several other single mothers in the course of the programme. She learnt about their struggles and found that she was able to draw strength from the life experiences of other mothers. Azilla revealed that there was one single mother whose life experience impacted her dramatically. This mother of Indian nationality was widowed after her Singaporean husband passed away suddenly at the age of 33 years. She was left to care for her special needs child in a foreign country with no friends or family as support. 56

Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena

Azilla began seeing her situation in a different light. She realised that she had a lot to be grateful for. Her children were healthy and she was able to effectively communicate in English. She felt that she was able to relate to this mother’s suffering and she began fostering a friendship with this mother. As part of the WEP, Azilla had to get used to speaking to an audience. The otherwise soft spoken and shy Azilla realised that sharing her problems with others in similar situations lessened her emotional burden. She also became more confident and started being more vocal. She even started encouraging others when she had the opportunity. Azilla added that encouraging others became the culture at the WEP and it was a great source of comfort and support. Azilla faced a lot of criticism and insults from some relatives and people around her neighbourhood. The children were also not spared and were mocked for having an incarcerated father. Azilla remembers being severely affected by these hurtful comments. She was not able to answer her children when they asked about their father. She avoided their questions and scolded them for asking. Now Azilla prefers to focus on the positive. She is also able to ignore comments that she knows is not true. She is honest with her children and prides herself in tactfully being able to steer her children towards thinking positively. During her session with her caseworker from SINDA FSC, Azilla shared that she wanted to move to a new rental unit. She felt that her children needed a safer and more conducive environment to stay in. Her caseworker supported her decision, highlighting further that the change in residence would give her husband a better chance of abstaining from drugs upon his release. Azilla appealed to the Housing Development Board (HDB) requesting for a reallocation of a rental flat. Her appeal was substantiated by supporting letters from SINDA FSC and from her constituency’s Member of Parliament (MP). The supporting letters appealed for priority allocation of a rental unit explaining Azilla’s extenuating circumstances. To help alleviate some of her financial burden, Azilla’s children were supported with Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund (SPMF) and thereafter SINDA Bursary. Her family was also assisted with the annual Back to School Festival (BTSF) kit to prepare school going children for the next school year. With this help, Azilla was able to focus on paying off her outstanding bills. However, some months were tougher than others. In those months Azilla had one-off ad-hoc assistance in the form of vouchers to buy household items and purchase assessment books and additional stationary items for the children. Using a monthly instalment plan, Azilla was able to gradually pay off her outstanding bills.


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Eventually much to Azilla’s relief, HDB had reallocated a rental flat for her family. While she was happy, Azilla was also worried that she would not be able to pay the $158.50 down payment needed before she could collect the house keys. SINDA FSC was able to support her with funds through Project SPARK which also helped her with the cost of transporting her furniture to her new flat. By this time, Azilla had also completed skills upgrading courses supported by SINDA FSC and other partnering agencies. The completion of these courses allowed Azilla to increase her earning capacity. She found a job as a Shipping Assistant earning $1000 with the option of overtime wages. Azilla is most appreciative of the flexible working hours that her company offers. It allows her to sustain good work-life balance and she is able to see more of her children. Needless to say over the course of time, Azilla has faced challenges in parenting her children and the occasional work-related or family problem. Azilla takes comfort in knowing that her SINDA FSC Counsellor would be able to support her through her problems. This was especially so when her husband was released from prison in 2013. Her counsellor helped her manage her expectations of her husband and advised her not to compound older issues that she had with her husband. She had to take challenges one at a time.

Client Outcome It is nearly half a year since the release of her husband from prison. Her husband has been gainfully employed and contributes to the family financially. He has also proven to be a capable father and source of emotional support to Azilla. When asked, Azilla shares that the support and guidance that SINDA FSC is the reason that she stands with optimism. She has learnt how to deal with negative thoughts and is now much calmer when she makes decisions. She is no longer afraid of sharing her concerns and getting support from those who can help her. She has also learnt how to better deal with her children. The upgrading courses and other motivational courses she had attended have increased her confidence. She has come a long way since January of 2011. Azilla is a living example that difficult times will never destroy someone whose determination to succeed is strong enough.


Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena

Guidelines for Working with an Indian Single Mother Population


rofessional staff who were involved in the management of care for Indian single mothers provided insight through a focus group discussion and personal interviews on how they worked with a low-income Indian single mother population. Their insights are important considerations that should be taken into account when engaging this population.

Connection Workers agreed that connecting with a single Indian mother population was sometimes challenging. These mothers were often reluctant to provide a full account of the issues that concerned them. This could be attributable to several reasons: Many of these women had been socialised to view it as shameful to disclose intimate issues relating to their families. To put their family members in a bad light was not culturally acceptable. Further these Indian single mothers saw themselves in an inferior position compared to their assigned case workers who seemed to be in a position of authority, having the ability to decide on how much aid they would receive. They, on the other hand, felt inferior because of their lack of good employment and family support and felt that they would be judged based on how they parented their children. As a result of these concerns, Indian single mothers were less likely to disclose issues readily during an interview with the case worker. They would instead focus on financial or housing concerns and evade issues that related to their history of abuse or family-related problems. In order to adequately help the Indian single mother client, it was important to build rapport. Only then would workers understand the single mother’s family system, the support they received and the risks that they were exposed to.


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena

Case workers made the following observations as to what helped them to better establish rapport:

term implication on the mothers’ mental well-being. As such, it was important to assess whether mothers needed assistance to better resolve their traumatic experiences and in some cases, information to appropriately deal with perpetrators of violence.

1. Self-disclosure

Case workers who had themselves experienced difficulties when they were growing up, occasionally disclosed how they had struggled through such experiences. This helped the single mother understand that the case worker shared some similar experiences and did not necessarily have perfect families.

3. Safety of mother and children

Where the single mother’s partner may still harass her, there is definite concern for the mother’s safety. Mothers may also be depressed and have suicidal ideation. Besides concerns for the mother’s safety, careful assessment needs to be made for the safety of the children especially in cases where there are no other responsible adults in the household beside the single mother. It is important to establish alternative child care arrangements when the mother is unable to perform her caregiving role.

2. Empathy Building through Validation

Case workers validated the difficulties that the single mother had to face and expressed their respect for how they coped with their situation. 3. Sincerity of Help

Clients were better able to connect with a case worker who demonstrated that he or she was working hard to better the single mother’s life. Case workers who sourced for help and negotiated with various agencies to obtain financial aid, educational support and employment opportunities for the client were likely to be viewed with greater trust. Rapport building took time and case workers noted that clients became more open and forthcoming as the therapeutic interactions increased and the workers had won the mothers trust.

Assessment In the course of working with single Indian mothers, it was important to ensure that a comprehensive assessment was conducted. Case workers noted the importance of assessing the following: 1. Extent of Resource Deprivation

Information needed to be obtained as to the resources that single mothers had limited access to. While most single mothers had access to basic necessities such as adequate food, clothing, housing and medical care, this was not the case for a small number of single mothers. It was also crucial to assess whether the single mother had existing friendship and family networks to provide them much needed support in their parenting tasks.

4. Environment Stressors

Case workers mentioned the importance of assessing the environment the single mother and her children lived in. Temporary shelters, rental apartments and living with friends or relatives posed unique challenges. It was important to consider whether these settings posed a problem to single mothers and their children’s safety or exposed them to undesirable elements.

Goals In order to help Indian single mothers better deal with the challenges they faced, it was important to establish goals for them to work towards. Case workers noted that these mothers were sometimes overwhelmed with the many issues they had to deal with, often simultaneously. It was then necessary to establish together with the mother, the concerns that needed to be tackled first. Often clients seemed to appreciate the case worker’s insight as to the most pressing issues that were foundational to resolving other problems. Establishing goals, even when they were done in collaboration with the mother, may be frustrating to the worker in the instances that single mothers do not work towards them. Case workers observed that occasionally single mothers agreed on goals because they were concerned that not accepting the worker’s proposal would mean that they would not receive the financial support they needed. The goals which might seem appropriate from the worldview of the worker may not be shared by the single mother who sometimes held different values.

2. Trauma & Abuse

Some single mothers would have experienced traumatic episodes in the past which had not been resolved. Trauma in the form of domestic violence or other forms of abuse was likely to have occurred for some of these single mothers. Such trauma had a long 60

In other cases, single mothers faced obstacles in pursuing the goals that were agreed upon. These were not surfaced during their interaction with their case worker even though the mother may have already known about such potential challenges. 61

Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Case workers agreed that it was important when establishing goals to consider whether the goals were in the best interests of the mother, or merely reflected the worker’s biases or agency imperatives. Revisiting goals with the interest of understanding why the single mother may not be achieving them was noted as a good practice, obviously superior to relegating her as an unmotivated client.

Intervention Case workers used a case management framework to help Indian single mothers. These mothers were best assisted when case workers were able to mobilise much needed resources while also counselling them on their social, emotional and psychological concerns. Support groups, such as those used in Project Athena presented a helpful setting for single mothers to work through many of their issues and find the necessary healing for some of their emotional pain. Unlike individual counselling where the dynamics of the counsellor and client may inhibit deeper sharing, the group setting often liberated mothers. They found the ability to share in-depth their emotional pains, trauma experiences and other issues which they needed to have surfaced. The group setting of fellow strugglers reduced the stigma and shame that the single mother felt since others were in a similar situation as her. The sharing and emotional expression provided by those who were more open to self-disclosure set the stage for those who were more reserved. However, complementing the learning from group settings with individual counselling sessions was important. Case workers noticed that while the group setting allowed clients to voice their concerns and may have allowed them to feel that their emotions were aptly released, it did not necessarily provide them with specific directions as to how to work through more specific issues. Individual sessions with the case worker were then crucial so that the gains from the group setting could be anchored in the lived-in realities of single mothers’ lives.


Prospects of Intervention – Project Athena



roject Athena as an intervention was successful largely because of the multi-dimensional approach it used in working with Indian single mothers. It attempted to manage the impact of single motherhood through a number of interventions. Group work and individual counselling was used to address various aspects of the mother’s psychological and emotional concerns. The trauma that mothers had previously experienced, often associated with spousal violence, seemed to be best tackled first in group settings where mothers who were more open about their problems would share freely. This encouraged greater disclosure among group participants who would otherwise be too embarrassed to expose such details. The psycho-educational component of group sessions provided tools for these Indian single mothers to deal with the negative, disabling and suicidal thoughts which oftentimes confronted them especially when they were in crisis points. An important aim of group work was to empower this population of lowincome Indian single mothers who felt overwhelmed by the numerous challenges they encountered. The absence of a husband, in a largely patriarchal community where his role was deemed necessary for the proper functioning of the family, left these mothers feeling very vulnerable and insecure. The group setting seeded in these mothers, through positive examples of other single mothers who had managed without their husbands, that it was achievable for them too to raise their families well without paternal support, even though that would have been ideal. Beyond helping mothers manage their psychological and emotional concerns, the holistic approach of Project Athena also attempted to help mothers gain financial self-reliance. The programme focused on assisting mothers with upgrading their skills and finding means to an income even if they had to be home-bound because of care-giving responsibilities. Despite these attempts to build self-reliance on the longer term, case management of this low-income population included accessing necessary financial aid for immediate needs. Where appropriate, case workers referred these mothers to Community Development Councils (CDCs), which managed funding schemes such as the Work Support Programme. These aid schemes provided interim financial help for Singaporean families as they pursued selfreliance. SINDA FSC case workers were also able to apply for a number of other financial schemes on behalf of their clients including pocket money for school-going children through the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, funds for relocating to new rental premises through Project SPARK, and food and educational vouchers which helped them during seasons when they were cash strapped. 63

To reduce the sense of deprivation and exclusion that came with poverty, case workers were able to direct vouchers and hampers to single mother families during festival seasons. This was so that their children could have a modest celebration and therefore not feel excluded from their broader community. Project Athena also organised a number of activities yearly which allowed single mothers to bring their children to popular attractions. The wide array of scholarships, bursaries and study assistance programmes which were available through SINDA further helped these low-income single mother families that would otherwise be excluded from higher learning opportunities. Project Athena also addressed the social impact that accompanied single motherhood. In a broader culture where single mothers were stigmatised, these low-income mothers had very small social networks. The group activities that were part of Project Athena brought single mothers together allowing them to form a community for themselves where they could feel accepted and supported. Befrienders further helped reduce the social isolation of single mother families. This was especially beneficial to those who had special needs children, where the child’s need for constant care made it difficult for the mother to access social support. Working with Indian single mothers then requires case workers to integrate as many services as possible so that the many negative impacts inherent in single motherhood were mitigated. As the evaluation study revealed, new coping skills necessary for the mothers to better deal with the emotional impact of single motherhood, can only be developed and maintained if there are sufficient resources for single mothers to fall back on. If the economic dimension of single parenthood is not addressed, single mothers will not be able to sustain positive ways of coping but will revert to old, non-adaptive ways of coping.



Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Reflection on Working with Indian Single Mothers


his section features reflections by social service professionals at SINDA FSC who routinely worked with Indian single mothers. It provides considerations for practice with these mothers. Reflections by the facilitators of Project Athena group sessions provide additional insights into working with such mothers and how such work is gratifying.


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Reflections by Social Service Professionals on Working with Indian Single Mothers My Journey with Project Athena


t was in 2008, when the idea of working with Indian single mothers was initiated at SINDA. SINDA FSC had organised two focus group meetings which helped define the challenges that single mothers encountered and proposed ways to tackle these issues. In 2009, the initiative was named Project Athena and piloted. When I was asked to spearhead this programme, I had my concerns as to whether single mothers would really be interested to attend the programme. To my surprise, when it was first launched, almost 109 single mothers attended the one-off workshops with their children, who attended the concurrent children programmes. In 2010, due to the popularity of the programme, a more structured programme was developed to cater more effectively to the larger number of potential beneficiaries. More segments to the programmes were developed within the Project Athena framework. There has been amazing feedback generated from the Value-based parenting, Women empowerment and Project WISH (Women In Self-Help) programmes. The majority of the single mother participants share about the emotional support that they received from one another. They realise that they are not are not alone in their journey as a single parents. As I sat through and facilitated some of these programmes, it pained me to hear the participants’ stories of emotional pain and abuse. There were times that I felt to cry but had to refrain myself as I did not want to further overwhelm participants. There were of course, the good and happy moments, when I saw Project Athena mothers’ more empowered, confident and ready for all that lay ahead of them. I celebrated these moments as validation of the hard work we put in developing and structuring the programme. It was also very fulfilling to see the children of Project Athena emerge more confident after being engaged through the children’s programmes.


Reflection on Working with Indian Single Mothers

Overall, Project Athena has not only helped single mothers. It has provided a platform for social workers and counsellors to greatly enrich their experiences working with these determined women. Jagjit Kaur, RSW Senior Counsellor

Helping Indian Single Mothers with Emotional, Intellectual and Physical Exhaustion


aising children is among the most demanding tasks for fully functional families. As such, to raise a child in a single parent home is certainly not for the faint-hearted. The level of mental fortitude and emotional grit that single parents have to possess is commendable and often overlooked. Bearing this in mind, I have found working with single mothers inspiring, but also a challenging experience. I am inspired by their endurance and dedication. Some of these women have shown admirable resourcefulness. These mothers certainly bear truth to the statement that adversity brings out character. One of the greatest challenges in working with a single mother population has to do with helping them manage their emotions and expectations. This is mainly because of the immense responsibilities they have to carry which leaves them exhausted intellectually, emotionally and physically. The sheer fact that she has to make all the decisions for her family and think of how to provide for their needs without recourse to a partner to bounce off ideas means that she ends up intellectually exhausted. She then drives herself into physical exhaustion trying to meet the demands of her work, homemaking and parenting, among other concerns that crop up regularly. Emotional exhaustion sets in as she finds herself having to always be available to juggle both her children’s and her own emotional needs. All of the single mothers I have worked with have presented with these three kinds of exhaustion. Thereafter they begin sharing feelings of loneliness, constant anxiety, general bitterness about life and often some form of situational or reactive depression. Relationships between mother and child strains and things can spiral out of control. As a professional, I strive to quell the war that goes on within them. While it does help to alleviate some of their financial burden, I place greater emphasis on helping them manage their emotions and thoughts. Placing emphasis on and paying compliments to their strengths is a good place to start. I feel that feeding the mind with positivity leads to fuelling their spirits towards positivity in return. The tired souls of these single mothers need to be rejuvenated to a level where they can say “My children and I are worthy of a good life and I am strong enough to love my children and myself”. 67

Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Creating or sometimes identifying a functional support system for the family has its merit. Support from relatives, friends and even neighbours can help offset the overload of the single mother’s responsibility. This also removes these mothers from isolation and acts as a buffer from high levels of stress. The children despite their age often feel the difference when there is a stronger support system for the family. The absence of a father figure is apparent to them no matter how much the mother may want to substitute for this. Positive male role models can help bridge this gap. The children then get to experience the affection that is common in a conventional family unit. Support groups such as SINDA FSC’s Project Athena also serve to empower these mothers. The knowledge that they are not alone is comforting to them and often this platform allows them to form lasting friendships with one another where resources are shared. Support group members serve as a pillar of support to lean on in times of difficulty and an avenue to deal with emotional baggage. Parenting is the most common concern for single mothers. They often share that they never feel like they are spending enough time with their children or cannot effectively communicate with them. Helping the mothers recognise that it is not the quantity of time that is important but the quality is liberating for many of them. Educating the mothers about their child’s developmental stages and what it means to be a twenty-first century parent is equally important. As a counsellor, I take special interest in how my client’s children are doing and whenever possible try to engage them too. This allows me to be a positive role model to them and also assures single mothers that others in the community care about the well-being of their children. Helping single parent families to reach their goals is often an uphill task. It requires many helping hands – medical social workers, school teachers, Members of Parliament, religious institutions, Community Development Councils and other community agencies. It has been said that it takes a village to raise one child. I see myself as being part of the village. I am grateful to be in a position where I am able to contribute in some small way to these families.

Reflection on Working with Indian Single Mothers

Working with Different Types of Indian Single Mothers


n my work with Indian single mothers I have observed two types of Indian single mothers – those who are determined to achieve a better life for themselves and their children and those who feel stuck and unable to move on in life. Those who do better tend to have a stable job with a steady income. This is associated with higher self-esteem and the ability to pull themselves together for the sake of the children. They do not have to depend on their ex-spouses for maintenance and for help to support the children, and hence do not feel that they are held hostage by their ex-spouses demands. This stability coupled with strong support from their family of origin helps them to keep their heads above water. Grandparents help deal with childcare and housing matters, and most importantly, provide much needed emotional support. This type of single mothers perseveres to make it on their own and has a very strong urge to succeed. Amidst supporting their children, they try to seek inner peace or fulfilment by volunteering and giving back to society. Others pursue higher education in the hope of a better future. Single mothers who seem to be stuck tend to come from dysfunctional families where they have learnt dysfunctional coping styles. They repeat the behaviour of their parents and often enter into a relationship with men even if they were like their abusive fathers. According to their worldview it is better that they put up with a ‘good-for-nothing’ man just so that their children would have a father. They then disregard the abuse they experience, believing that they are doing what is best for their children. They are unable to foresee the negative impacts such an abusive relationship would have on themselves and their children. Since there are different types of Indian single mothers who come with different backgrounds, it is important to understand their worldviews and values. Only then will it be possible to help them find adaptive ways of coping and change behavioural patterns. Parvin Yossuff Social Worker

Praveen Valsalan Counsellor



Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Working with Indian Single Mothers – A Cross-Cultural Experience


t has been more than a year since I started working at SINDA FSC. A question that I am always asked is, “Why do you choose to work at SINDA Family Service Centre? I mean, don’t you feel weird working in an environment where it’s predominantly Indian? It is so different culturally.” My answer is always, “Why not?” As social workers, are we allowed to actually choose our clients? Could we say that just because a client is different from us, we will choose to forgo that particular client and focus on another client who is more similar to us? I am sure that as fellow professionals in the field, we should agree that we should treat each and every client fairly. Once I figured this out, I knew that there was nothing wrong with my decision to work in SINDA FSC. Of course, working in SINDA FSC has brought on its own challenges. For one, clients always step into SINDA FSC expecting to receive assistance from a fellow Indian. Part of this may be due to their thinking that it is easier to obtain assistance from somebody from a similar culture as they will be more understanding of their plight. As such, many of them are initially unwilling to open up. However, as with any other client, the key is to build rapport and ensure that you show that you are truly there to assist them. Clients are able to sense the genuine care and concern given by a case worker, regardless of his or her race. It has thus far been a really enriching learning journey for me at SINDA FSC. Koh Zhihao Benjamin Social Work Associate

Reflection on Working with Indian Single Mothers

Reflections by Project Athena Facilitators on Working with Indian Single Mothers Women with Fortitude


eaching out for help is not common for most Indian women. Most of the single mothers I have worked with have a strong sense of pride and self-dignity. Initially they were reluctant to disclose their real problems in group session to avoid embarrassment. They are also uncertain about whether their confidentiality will really be maintained. However, with each session, as they develop better rapport with the group, there is a sense of camaraderie. For more than half of these single mothers, their low academic qualifications limit the kinds of jobs and the remunerations they can get. Some of them attempt to hold down more than one job to make ends meet. While it may solve some of their financial woes, inadvertently, other issues such as child behavioural problems arise due to their long absence from home. These women go through a metamorphic shift when they attend Project Athena programmes. Their sense of self-worth and self-confidence increases tremendously. They are less inhibited in expressing their thoughts and views. Their renewed sense of self-reliance and capability make them more resourceful in their search for jobs and career advancement. In addition, they are able to manage their finances better and are aware of the sources of grants they can tap into for their families. I find it especially rewarding when I see these mothers practise effective parenting skills. They gain skills in active listening and are able to communicate to their children in a way that they feel loved, understood, valued, respected and safe - the LUVRS approach. The children, in turn, observe the family ground rules that they had a part in establishing. The mothers also realise that setting clear boundaries and being consistent, a task that is challenging especially with parenting teenagers, pays off when their children make a turnaround. It has been both a humbling and enriching experience working with such tenacious and resilient women to whom I am most grateful.


Sujatha Sadhasivan Mothers’ Programme (Value-Based Parenting/Women Empowerment Programme)


Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Journeying with Single Mothers and their Children


started my journey with Indian single mothers at Fuchun Community Club. It was really a new experience for me. I am also a mother, but the issues I face in life are very different from what single mothers face. Nevertheless, I can identify with their concerns in raising their children and providing for their family. These mothers have to often deal with problems which relate especially to parenting. Some mothers are over-protective of their children. This frustrates the children and the mothers as well. Others are overly critical of their children while a few practise favouritism. These are opportunities for me to advice the mothers and share with them appropriate parenting practices. It was a good feeling for me at the end of the programme to see these mothers establish a supportive family environment. Subsequently, I worked with the children of Indian single mothers in Project Athena. Children cannot express their innermost feelings easily unless they are comfortable. I conducted drama lessons for them. This allowed them to express their emotions through acting. I always start my lessons with free expression drawing. This helps me to identify the children’s innermost feelings. I notice that when the children draw a picture of their family, they include their fathers in the picture. When they come forward to present their pictures, they share the good memories of their fathers and express that they miss their fathers very much. Some mothers seem very angry when the children express love for the fathers. This is really sad, especially since the children continue to want to have some connection with their fathers. I also help the mothers in the programme appreciate their children’s ability. Last year, I helped train the children to perform a skit and dance “Gangnam Style”. The mothers were in tears when they realised that their children were so creative and responsible when performing on stage. One of the children who had ADHD became the star of the show and received a standing ovation.

Reflection on Working with Indian Single Mothers

Helping Single Mothers Gain Confidence


have facilitated the Women Empowerment Programme for Project Athena since 2009. I also co-facilitated the Values Based Parenting Workshops. These facilitation roles have given me an opportunity to work with this unique group of mothers. Resilience is what I see so fiercely etched on the faces of single mothers in Project Athena. They display much strength playing the difficult role of being both mum and dad to their children. The everyday juggling of being both father and mother to their children, as well as an employee, leaves them very little opportunity to be themselves. In the Women Empowerment Programme, they are encouraged to reflect not only on their families’ needs, but on their own needs and aspirations. By doing this they become more fulfilled and feel less exhausted. Most of the mothers attend the workshops thinking that they are the only ones with issues. However with each carefully planned session, I have observed that the participants learn not just from the workshop topics but from each other. The workshops serve as support groups to these single mothers to gain strength from each other to reach their goals. It gives me great satisfaction as a facilitator in Project Athena, when I see these single mothers grow in confidence and make their dreams come true. The single mums who have completed the workshops are motivated to take on life. They are like bamboo, bending at the weight but flexible enough to never break. These mothers go after their dreams of providing and inculcating values in their children, despite the many challenges they face. Although they fail at times, they never give up on their roles as Mum and Dad to their children. This to me is admirable. Project Athena has equipped them to face the many challenges thrown at them with much faith and strength. Shailash Naidu Mothers’ Programme (Value-Based Parenting/Women Empowerment Programme)

I am grateful that I have the opportunity to work with Indian single mothers and their children. While I help them on their life journey, they too constantly inspire me to live life to the fullest. Malini Menon Children’s Programme (Speech and Drama/Phonics)



Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers

Reflection on Working with Indian Single Mothers

ome discourses on single mothers portray this group as extremely pitiful. Their financial hardship, psychological stressors and the immense responsibility of aptly caring for their young sets them up as those deserving public sympathy. Other discourses prefer to focus on the resilient nature of single mothers. These women are then celebrated for their determination to conquer the odds with grit.

It would however be within the larger ethos of Singapore’s welfare model of building self-reliance rather than an over-reliance on welfare payments, for social services that work with a single mother population to be better funded. These funds should allow social services substantial discretion to better support deserving single mothers who have done all they can to be responsible but yet face substantial challenges. Additional funding to staff more professionals and organise volunteers is again much needed if sufficient outreach is to be made to single mothers. The long journey that single mothers have to make to raise their children does not only require access to necessary financial resources but also much support and guidance. Passionate social service professionals who are committed to being culturally sensitive and can see the rich potential in single mother families will certainly make a positive impact in the lives of single mothers and their families. Attracting and retaining such social service professionals then is the order of the day.



The reflections that were included in the previous pages seem to lie somewhere in the middle. Social workers and volunteers working with Indian single mothers cannot help but notice the immense difficulties that at least a portion of this low-income population faces. Yet the cases of some single mothers have shown them that there is great potential for change if some vital ingredients are in place. It is easy to suggest that the silver bullet for the betterment of single mothers’ lives is a generous welfare system. Such a system, as can be found in a number of welfare states around the world reduces resource inadequacy and thus makes the task of parenting much less stressful. Mothers are assured that the welfare cheque will ensure that they and their children are sufficiently provided for, at least until their children complete their basic education. Moreover, receiving an allowance does not disincentivise single mothers from employment and fulfilling themselves outside the confines of domestic labour. Cross-national research indicates that there is no relationship between generous welfare regimes and lower maternal employment39. A generous welfare system however, does not seem to be tenable in Singapore in the near future since policy makers and perhaps the general public is averse to entitling those who may not be deemed as having made responsible decisions. Those working with single mothers notice behavioural patterns among some of these mothers that are not adaptive. If welfare is generous, some wonder whether these mothers will be enabled negatively and not focus their attention on their children’s development. Others are equally concerned that generous welfare will encourage single parenting, an undesirable societal outcome considering the vast amount of literature supporting the role of both father and mother in the child’s development.

Lane D. & Brady, D (2011). Does European-Style welfare generosity discourage single-mother employment?, in Brady, D (ed.) Comparing European Workers Part B: Policies and Institutions (Research in the Sociology of Work, Volume 22), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.53-82.

About the Author Mathew Mathews is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore where he leads the Society and Identity cluster. Before joining the Institute, he was teaching at the University’s Department of Sociology. While some of his research covers matters related to societal cohesion such as race, religion and integration concerns, he is also passionate about investigating family issues. His previous research on the family has examined the impact of gambling addiction on families, marriage resilience and parenthood. He has also evaluated social service programmes including counselling services for the elderly. Among the few large-scale survey projects that Mathew is currently engaged in, he is also a co-investigator in a longitudinal project researching low-income families placed under the Work Support Programme. Besides his publications in journals and edited volumes, Mathew authored the book Status of Professional Counselling in the Singaporean Social Service Sector. He is actively involved in community service and is President of Alive Community Network, a Voluntary Welfare Organisation that works with families and youth. He is also on the advisory boards of Marriage Central and OnePeople.sg and is a Research Advisor to the Ministry of Social and Family Development.





Working with Low-income Indian Single Mothers


by SINDA Family Service Centre We would like to thank the following individuals for contributing to the success of Project Athena:

• Mr S Dhanabalan, Life Trustee, SINDA • Mr Rajoo Amurdhalingam • Dr Mathew Mathews

We would also like to thank the following organisations for partnering us:


• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

National Council of Social Services (NCSS) Singapore Totalisator Board (Tote Board) Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) Temasek Cares Singapore Work Development Agency Community Development Councils Family Service Centres Singapore Anglican Community Services NTUC We Care For U Women’s Initiative for Aging Successfully (WINGS) Mar Thoma Syrian Church Singapore Indian Association Little Arts Academy, Singapore Singapore Indian Chamber Commerce and Industry (SICCI) Aljunied, Indian Activity Executive Committee Radin Mas, Indian Activity Executive Committee Jurong Green, Indian Activity Executive Committee Nee Soon South, Indian Activity Executive Committee Essilor Singapore Advent Links –SAUC Education Centre Pte Ltd Cerealtech School of Baking Technology Premier Security Co-Operative Ltd

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