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 While some of the provisions are a little out of date, the Women’s Charter is NOT anti-male.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.
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.
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.
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.