Phenomenal Woman: Constance Goh

Constance Goh was a pioneering activist in the family planning movement, both for her chosen home country Singapore and the world.

Born in Xiamen, China, Goh moved to Singapore with her mother in 1918. Sent back to Shanghai for studies when she was 18, she took some courses in social studies that gave her opportunities to visit prisons, courts, factories and farms. It was here that Constance began to notice social injustices around her, such as girls as young as eight having to do fine embroidery work in dimly-lit room.

In 1930, she returned to Singapore and married Goh Kok Kee, a public health doctor, in 1932. After the Second World War and Japanese Occupation of Singapore ended in 1945, Constance started a feeding center for impoverished children. Many of the children were not orphans; they had families, but their parents could not afford to feed their large brood.

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Food rationing in Singapore continued even after the Japanese left and the British returned to reassert control of the island.

Constance began to think about the next step – how to get people to stop having large families that they would not be able to clothe, feed, and raise properly – and became a fervent advocate of family planning. In 1949, she suggested that family planning advice be made available to mothers at infant welfare clinics.

She soon realised that a more comprehensive and systematic approach to spread the message was needed. A meeting of people interested in the matter was called, and from that meeting, the Singapore Family Planning Association (SFPA) was born. Constance was named the first chairwoman of the association, which eventually became the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association, as it remains known to this day.

A few months after the SFPA was formed, the first family planning clinic was opened in Constance’s husband’s clinic. On the day it opened, just one patient turned up. But as the word spread, patient and visitor numbers increased rapidly.

The association had to deal with much resistance. People widely thought large families to be natural and desirable. There were also various religious groups that were opposed to birth control. But Constance and her colleagues persisted, steadily working to spread the word via posters, leaflets, and media interviews.

In 1952, together with like-minded women from other countries, Constance co-founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

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It was very difficult to persuade men to use condoms. Most men thought only of their own pleasure. The worship of ancestors influenced their attitudes as well. You must have sons to provide for you in the after-life and to carry on the family name, to serve you. If you don’t have sons you must try and try again. Many times their wives came to us in secret.” – Constance Goh on setting up the first family planning clinic in Singapore

In recognition of her work, she was made a Justice of the Peace in 1949 and conferred the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1951.

Constance Goh passed away in 1996. She was 90 years old.

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