This year marks the 55th anniversary of the Women’s Charter, which was amended again earlier this year to reflect the changes in our society today.
What is the Women’s Charter?
The Women’s Charter, first enacted in 1961, institutes the rights of women, and protects vulnerable women and girls. The Women’s Charter is also fundamental in strengthening the family institution in Singapore.
The amendments to the Women’s Charter are part of the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF)’s larger effort to regularly update and better support families.
Today, the number of divorces is on the rise, with the rate of divorce particularly high among those who are getting married at a younger age. Children are often the ones most adversely impacted when caught in the middle of their parents’ fights. Women have made significant progress when it comes to their earning power and labour participation rates. More women are working, resulting in the increase in dual-income families. Women are generally receiving higher educations and given more opportunities at work, with some even holding positions in the upper echelon of companies.
The proposed amendments to the Women’s Charter seek to do three main things:
- It aims to better protect the interest of children affected by their parents’ divorce.
- Allow incapacitated husbands and ex-husbands to apply for spousal maintenance when there is a clear need;
- Implement measures to reinforce amended maintenance laws
Women to now provide for ill, disabled husbands or ex-husbands
Today, under the Women’s Charter, maintenance may be ordered for children and for a spouse or ex-spouse. The law presently, however, does not enable men to seek spousal maintenance from their wives or ex-wives.
Although MSF is still hesitant to allow men to seek for maintenance, the Women’s Charter was amended to allow ill, disabled husbands or ex-husbands to do so if he can meet the following criteria. He must be:
- Incapacitated before or during the course of the marriage,
- Unable to earn a livelihood and
- Unable to support himself
This comes after calls for gender equality and neutrality when it comes to spousal maintenance. Some argued that spousal maintenance should be gender-blind, especially since the progress of the status of women today. During the debate, some MPs argued for even more support for men that go beyond the latest changes.
Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) called for the laws to be made “a little more equal, by offering men the same protection as women.” On the other hand, Ms Jessica Tan Soon Neo (East Coast) argues that, despite women’s “strong advancement” since the law was enacted, “there are still several areas where women lag behind men … salary, senior management, decision-making roles in organizations including boards”. This was supported by Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC), who pointed out that women are also financially more vulnerable after a divorce, urging caution against further moves to let other groups of men claim maintenance.
Other changes under the amended law include making it compulsory for divorcing couples with minor children to attend a parenting programme before they split, if they are unable to agree on all issues concerning their divorce.
Measures to reinforce amended maintenance laws
In 2011, amendments were introduced by Parliament regarding maintenance payments. Parliament’s challenge now is not to create new laws but to implement new measures to reinforce the amended law.
One such measure is with the introduction of the new role, Maintenance Record Officers (MRO), who will help the courts identify those who default on maintenance payment. Parliament is adopting a more “empathetic approach” for defaulters in genuine difficulty by extending more help to husbands or ex-husbands whose circumstances have changed such that they genuinely cannot pay maintenance. Examples are those who have serious debilitating illness and are not able to work for a sustained period. With the new measures in place, they can approach the Community Justice Centre for legal assistance to review the maintenance orders.
MRO’s roles include assessing the defaulter’s ability to pay by obtaining information on parties’ financial circumstances to help the court in its fact-finding process. They will also have the power in court to tender the information obtained as evidence for the court to consider. For those who are genuinely unable to fork out the maintenance, timely financial assistance will be extended to the vulnerable wives, ex-wives and children through the MSF’s Social Service Offices.
In contrast, Parliament has adopted a much stricter approach with recalcitrant maintenance defaulters – or in another words, those who have the means to but chooses not to honour their maintenance payments. With the assessment of the individual’s capacity to pay, Judges will be in a better place to make complete use of the range of enforcement levers introduced in the 2011 amendments. Judges can impose harsher penalties against these recalcitrant individuals.
Steps to protect children
The previous amendments in 2011 required divorcing parents with children to attend mandatory mediation and counselling after a writ of divorce had been filed. This has so far been relatively efficient in aiding some divorcing couples reach agreements on matters regarding their children in less acrimonious ways.
However, it is still not ideal to only go for mandatory mediation and counselling on children’s issues, after first battling it out in Court to settle the divorce. Rather, it is much better to have divorcing parents consider their children’s well-being early, before the divorce process formally starts. This is because many divorcing parties would have become hardened in their positions or too caught up with their emotions by that time. Thus, a new section 94A in the Women’s Charter requires divorcing couples with minor children who are not able to agree on all matters of divorces to attend a compulsory parenting programme before they can file for divorce. For a start, those with at least one child aged below 14 years will be required to attend the programme, with plans to eventually extend this requirement to those with children aged below 21 years old.
This programme will cover a range of issues that will have a tangible impact on children such as housing, school, care arrangements, and bread and butter issues. The programme will also stress the importance of positive co-parenting after divorce.
Parliament stressed that the intention is not to make it more onerous for parties to be granted a divorce. Instead, the objective is to better equip parties with knowledge and awareness of the issues arising in a divorce that will affect their children. This will encourage parents to make better decisions that will benefit the child during the process of divorce.
Overall, MSF hopes that with the amended laws they will be better placed to support families and also cater to the needs of our changing society.