January 2nd, 2014

Pay maintenance on the basis of fairness, not gender

By Jolene Tan

An employment history with substantial gaps due to childcare translates into lower long-term earning power.

divorceI refer to Mr Oo Choon Peng’s letter, “Women’s Charter: Time to review basis for claiming maintenance” (Dec 26).

The Association of Women for Action and Research has long argued that maintenance should be paid on the basis of fairness and need, rather than gender.

The existence of maintenance reflects the fact that marriage often involves a sacrifice of career or economic prospects by one party to take care of the other party’s domestic needs.

Traditionally, women have scaled down participation in the formal workforce to engage in valuable domestic labour, including housework, childcare and other dependant care.

Social and economic norms have shifted since the Women’s Charter was drafted, but domestic labour remains unequally shared.

According to last year’s labour force survey, 43.3 per cent of economically inactive women cited housework, childcare and other caregiving activities as their main reason for not working or looking for a job, compared with 1.8 per cent of men.

This reduced labour participation has financial ramifications that cannot be undone simply by returning to the workforce later, as Mr Oo suggests. An employment history with substantial gaps due to childcare translates into lower long-term earning power.

Economically inactive spouses also miss out on years of Central Provident Fund payments, which is why women have less CPF savings than men do at retirement.

This sacrifice is made to address the couple’s joint needs, but it also boosts the career prospects and earning power of the working spouse. This benefit endures far beyond the divorce.

Consequently, fairness requires that maintenance payments reflect the contributions of unpaid domestic labour. The Women’s Charter requires the court, rightly, to consider the income and earning potential of the spouse seeking maintenance.

AWARE agrees that spouses should not be awarded maintenance if an assessment of all the circumstances, including these factors, renders it inappropriate.

We also support the extension of maintenance payments to situations where it would be equitable for a woman to support her former spouse financially.

Indeed, in 1996, then-Nominated Member of Parliament and former AWARE President Kanwaljit Soin proposed that women should pay maintenance to ex-husbands in suitable cases.

The principle underlying the payment of maintenance is one of fairness. Its core remains sound and relevant even today.

Jolene Tan is the Programmes and Communications Senior Manager at AWARE. This letter was first published in TODAY on 28 December 2013. Read the published version here

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