November 3rd, 2010

Is the Women’s Charter Unfair to Men?

In my experience as a lawyer, there are three main reasons that some men think the Women’s Charter puts them at a disadvantage. First there’s the name. Clearly a statute named “The Women’s Charter” must be about protecting women and be for their benefit, no?

Secondly, it’s to do with maintenance.
The Charter provides that only wives may seek maintenance from their husbands, and not the other way around.
Thirdly, there’s the custody debate. Many male divorcees claim (incorrectly, as I will later point out) that the Women’s Charter denies them the right to keep their children, and that because of the Charter, custody battles will almost always end in the mothers’ favour.
While I can understand why people think that the Women’s Charter is anti-male, this is really is a misconception. While some of the provisions are a little out of date, the Women’s Charter is NOT anti-male. The current exercise to update the Charter comes at a good time and we should use this opportunity to remove this misconception.
The Name
Part of the perceived imbalance is that there’s no Men’s Charter. The fact is that the Women’s Charter, passed in 1961, was borne out of a need to protect the rights of women. The regime prior to the Women’s Charter was extremely unfair to women. Men could legally take several wives. Women did not have the right to keep their maiden names and it was not clear if they could even own property. In the historical context, the Women’s Charter was an appropriate name in the ’60s as it provided women with some fundamental rights that women today take for granted but which were not available before the Charter.
However, the content of the Women’s Charter is not just about protecting women and conferring them with one-sided rights. The Charter essentially covers every conceivable aspect of marital and family law, from registration and dissolution of marriages, division of matrimonial assets, to maintenance provisions and the welfare of children.
So, really, the more appropriate name for this Act is the Family Charter.
This is why AWARE has recommended, in its Feedback on the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill to the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) that it should change the name of the Act to the Family Charter. This will go some way towards removing the widely held misconception that the Charter only protects women.
Today, under the Womens’ Charter, only women are entitled to seek maintenance from their spouse. Yes, this does seem somewhat unfair and outmoded since, unlike 50 years ago when the Charter was passed, many women work full-time and there are wives who earn more than their husbands.
AWARE believes that the Women’s Charter should be updated to reflect the changes in society and to promote a more gender neutral approach to marriage. In AWARE’s feedback on the proposed amendments to the Women’s Charter:
“AWARE recommends that the Women’s Charter be amended to provide that in appropriate cases, where it is just and equitable, husbands should have right to seek maintenance from their wives, both during marriage and after the divorce. Examples of such situations include cases where the husband is sick or incapacitated and has been dependent on his wife.”
The emphasis is of course, on “appropriate cases”. In implementing this and in drafting the actual provisions, legislators must be mindful that this change should not be abused to allow irresponsible husbands who have not pulled their weight either at work or at home to make use of the ammended provision to get maintenance for themselves – which was the concern raised by some family lawyers. After all, there are far fewer househusbands than housewives in Singapore today. Furthermore, it is rare to find cases where husbands have been so disadvantaged by their family arrangements that they cannot maintain themselves in a divorce.
Child Custody
As for the contentious issue of child custody, care and control, the Women’s Charter currently states very simply that the paramount consideration in determining custody of the child is “the welfare of the child”. In a society where women are, in the majority of cases, the main caregiver of the child, the Court will often take the view that “the welfare of the child” demands that custody be awarded to the mother. There may be some gender stereotyping at play, but the Women’s Charter is not to blame, wrongly defined gender roles are.
Equal Partnership
One of my favourite provisions in the Women’s Charter is Section 46. This states that “the husband and the wife shall be mutually bound to co-operate with each other in safeguarding the interests of the union and in caring and providing for the children” and that “the husband and the wife shall have equal rights in the running of the matrimonial household”.
Certainly, there’s no unfairness or biasness here. The Charter was well ahead of its time in supporting gender equality in the household. I look forward to the update of the Charter and hope that the Charter will be revised so that it is as progressive today as it was when it was first enacted.

Corinna Lim is AWARE’s Executive Director and before that practised law for more than 10 years. She played an integral role in the AWARE sub-committee providing feedback on the Women’s Charter (Ammendment) Bill.


  1. Serene Ong

    Being the lady, I appreciate the good intent of the woman charter. However, in today’s modern society, woman may not necessarily be the weaker party. What process is in place to help men who suffered the plight of divorce silently ? I never understand how helpless a man could be until my brother went through a painful divorce.

    Divorce could be a lengthy process when both parties could not agree on the T&C.
    While the divorce is in progress, who decides what is the “best interest of the kids” ? What can the husband do when the wife prohibit him to see the kids ?

    While the government is reviewing the need to penalize the husband who fail to pay the monthly maintenance, isn’t it equally important to impose penalty on woman who does not grant the husband access to the kids ?

  2. Genie

    Hi Serene,
    I agree with you totally. Though I am also a woman, I do find woman’s charter bias, gender sterotyping and unfair to men. They failed to see them as also being the victims! Hope some day they will stop and think and consider those helpless men who are the silent sufferers. Just because men don’t talk loudly like many women do, doesn’t mean they can be robbed of their rights. Sigh!

  3. Cindy

    Unfair and bias. When yr own brother or father , relation gets affected, u will know how it feels like.

    • AWARE Admin

      Divorce is complicated and difficult for both parties, the husband and wife, and most of all for the children.

      It is the role of the court to decide what is in the best interests of the children.

      If a husband or wife denies their partner the right to see his children, they must go through the courts and go the the process of reporting it. If a husband defaults on their maintenance payments, the wife must also go through the courts and go through the process of reporting it. In this way the court acts as the mediator.

      AWARE promotes gender equality and submitted a document to MCYS suggesting changes to the Women’s Charter to improve its gender balance such as allowing for a wife to pay a husband’s maintenance in cases where the husband is sick or incapacitated or for some reason unable to work and earn income.

      Unfortunately these changes were not enacted or taken on board. AWARE is disappointed at this decision.

      Women have received many liberties but in our society the burden of childcare continues to fall on the mother, and the role of the father is often underplayed. This is a serious form of gender inequality and AWARE is working to change this view. We would like to see the state honouring the important role both parents play in the child’s welfare, the importance of fathers and pivotal role that fathers play. AWARE strongly feels that by law, new fathers should be granted substantial paternity leave for example.

      Gender equality in society and gender roles in the family and complex and formed over eons. AWARE’s role is to shift attitudes and laws towards better gender balance.

  4. Syxx

    Hi..i am a father of a 3 yr old son…i am going thru a divorce & custody of my son..i just want to know..if a man goes thru a divorce,due of him having an affair..he tends to lose the custody of his son…rite? Then how about the wife who is caught having an affair? Does that mean she have the rights to have the custody of her son? Even though the husband is a filial husband who pays all the house bills,her debts,her trips on holiday,the kid everyday stuffs,taking care of the child day in & day out during his marriage life with her? Even so if she is the mother of the child,does that means she can do anything she wants even to the extend of her having an affair & get the custody of her son even the husband never ever did have an affair? As far as i know..the child under 6 usually goes to the mother side even if she is in the wrong unless she doesnt want the for me what if the father who did not have any affair..stay faithful towards the spouse during his marriage life then went through a divorce & loses out on his care & control towards his own son due to his wife inappropriate act of been caught having an affair? Is it fair? So where is the rights for us men? Especially for the one who loves & cherish his child very much. I just want to men who have an affair have to pay for maintenance fees,child’s maintenance & lose custody of his son…right? Then how about some men who is not having an affair but their wives who does? To be honest some men couldnt care less about the maintenance fee but care so much about their children & wanted to be & have care & control over their children. I cried everyday of my life thinking about my son,the custody & wanting to be with my son but i cherished every single seconds when i am with him. So where is the fairness towards the person e.g. me?

    • AWARE Admin

      Syxx it is not true that a father will lose custody of his children if he has an extra-marital affair. This applies in the same way to a mother who will not lose custody of her children if she has an extra-marital affair.

      Great to see is some gender balance here!

  5. Does the social norm in Asian society of child custody going to the father have an effect different from the Western custom of default custody to the mother?…

    I don’t have hard facts to back me up, but my instinct tells me that the premise of this is wrong. Singapore, I’m sure, favors the mother [1], and a brief internet search seems to suggest that both India [2] and Taiwan both do so too. I also browsed …