Five years into her marriage, Donna*, 35, started getting physical and verbal abuse from her husband, whom she married in 2006.

When their only daughter turned one, the abuse got worse, bad enough for Donna to apply for a Personal Protection Order (PPO) against him. However, after every time her husband abused her, he would apologise and promise that he would change, and she would forgive him.

Although she had a PPO, she did not exercise it. Due to her Christian faith, she was afraid to have a broken family and was also scared to be alone as she had no income or any family support in Singapore.

The abuse went on for the next five years and took a psychological toll on Donna.

When Donna, a Filipino who came to Singapore to work ten years ago, returned to the Philippines to enrol her daughter in a primary school there, she was reliant on her husband to send her money as she could not get a job in her hometown.

“I had to beg him all the time for money. I felt quite alone and helpless. As months went by, I sensed that something was not right back in Singapore. I sensed that my husband was cheating on me although he denied it. I wanted to believe him. After nine months, I decided to come back to Singapore. When I got to our flat and found her things there, he could not deny the affair,” Donna says.

When Donna decided to ask her husband for a divorce, he mocked her for thinking she could live without him.

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Donna shares: “One night, my husband came home drunk, and I pretended to be asleep. He slammed the door shut and tried to pull the blanket off me. I was really scared. He headbutted me, insulted me and spat on me. He then took out a Swiss pocket knife and held it to my neck. I shouted for help, but the other tenants in the flat did not offer any. I called the police but before the police arrived, he had already fled the house.

“A week later, he came back at night drunk again. I was very frightened, I was scared for my life. But this time he just came to me and hugged me. He kept hugging me and saying he was sorry!

“He was arrested two days later – the matter had become a criminal case because he had threatened me with a knife.”

Donna’s husband was sentenced to six months in jail but her abuse didn’t end there. When she tried to return to the Philippines, Donna received death threats from her husband’s family and had to move to another province far away from relatives and friends, where she could not even speak the language, just so that she and her daughter could not be found.

Her husband eventually agreed to a judicial separation and Donna managed to bring her daughter back to Singapore.

During that period, Donna moved into Star Shelter, a charity under Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, which provides a safe temporary refuge for women and their children who are victims of family violence.

It is here that Donna was able to pick up simple braiding and beading skills to create handmade bracelets and other jewellery to earn a small income.

These handmade jewelry are sold via PoPstrings Project, an initiative started by Dr Gina Parekh, 55, a health strategy consultant.

Star shelter
Dr Gina Parekh at a PoPstrings Project pop-up stall. / Image source: PoPstrings Project

Gina, an ophthalmologist by training, left her profession in 2016 to find her life’s calling.

“I felt I needed to get out of my head and listen to my heart. In the following months, I started practising yoga and meditation, which made me realize that there isn’t a more powerful change
we can make in our lives than altering how we think on a daily basis,” Gina tells The Pride.

“I started looking for ways to create a tangible source of positive energy for people that I love. I found happiness in handcrafting bracelets. It gave me a channel to exhibit my creativity and pass forward the positive intention put in each braid, glue and stitch.

“I started volunteering with AWWA (Asian Women’s Welfare Association) and working with children. It was the most rewarding part of my week and I realised that I learnt more from them than the other way around! I decided to combine the two. What if I made bracelets with the power of positive intention and donated the profits to charity? That was how PoPstrings project was born.”

Since 2016, PoPstrings Project has been working with Star Shelter to teach survivors of domestic violence how to make beaded jewellery. Its vision is to support these women to be creative, joyful and spread the power of positivity (PoP), one braid at a time!

Star shelter singapore
Jewellery beading and braiding classes at Star Shelter. / Image source: PoPstrings Project

With the support of volunteers, PoPstrings Project organises regular classes for beneficiaries to bead and braid bracelets. Proceeds from the sale of their creations go fully to these beneficiaries, allowing them to earn a supplementary income. All other proceeds are donated directly to Star Shelter.

A spokesman for the shelter tells The Pride that its residents have to be financially independent for themselves and their children as this is also a form of empowerment and healing as they break free from their violent families. The shelter does however, provide funding to residents who need upskilling or re-skilling courses to re-enter the workforce. This is also where the donated funds from PoPstrings Project sales go to support the residents directly.

The benefits are not only monetary as the sales from PoPstrings Project are usually not enough to sustain the residents and their families. Star Shelter’s main goal with such volunteer activities is the therapeutic experience of beading and the safety that the women feel in the social circle with the volunteers.

Residents of Star Shelter find the classes fun and relaxing, they say. And the jewellery-making skills learnt during class also give them a confidence boost.

And the positivity is mutual. Gina says: “Every class, every interaction – I learn something new. The community of women and children that we have built, gives me happiness, joy and a sense of purpose that is as important to me as any of my other career achievements!

Handmade jewellery by residents of Star Shelter. / Image source: Facebook / PoPstrings project

Gina adds that her desire is to empower women and to turn victims into survivors.

“Domestic abuse is not something we are comfortable to speak about as individuals or as a society. We must remove that taboo,” she adds.

As Covid-19 has greatly limited physical outreach initiatives such as pop-up stalls and company corporate social responsibility (CSR) partnerships, Gina hopes to focus on online sales through social media channels to improve awareness and increase donations to Star Shelter.

Donna’s domestic violence survivor story is one of many. Although she has since left the shelter, she still worries about her family’s future.

“Going back to the Philippines is dangerous and I remain worried all the time for our safety when we live there. I hope that my daughter can become a permanent resident in Singapore – where it is safe, and the education system is good. And I can live here permanently,” she says.

To those who are victims of domestic abuse, Donna says: “The first time you face violence of any form – be it physical, verbal, emotional or psychological – you have to put a stop to it. Don’t think of anything else besides your personal safety. Nobody has the right to hurt another human being.”

*Note: Some information has been changed to protect the identity of the victim and her child.

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Top Image: PoPstrings Project