May 2nd, 2014

Tweak Women’s Charter for gender equality

WE WELCOME Justice Choo Han Teck’s suggestion to review the Women’s Charter, including its provisions on maintenance, to better reflect the values of gender equality (“Maintenance not an unalloyed right of women: Judge”).

Spousal maintenance is necessary because domestic labour remains unequally shared.

In an Aware survey last year, 58 per cent of male respondents stated that women should take care of household chores and caregiving, compared with 47 per cent of female respondents.

Manpower Ministry statistics show that 43.3 per cent of economically inactive women cited housework, childcare and other caregiving duties as the main reasons for not looking for a job, compared with only 1.8 per cent of men.

Clearly, it is still much more common for women than men to make economic sacrifices to take care of their spouse’s domestic needs and responsibilities. This boosts the husband’s career prospects and earning power, long after any divorce.

This arrangement also has a negative impact on the long-term employability and financial position of economically inactive spouses, especially their levels of Central Provident Fund savings.

Maintenance orders are just and appropriate in such situations. But they should be made on the basis of fairness, not gender. And they should likewise be available where it would be equitable for a woman to support her former spouse financially – a position championed by then Nominated MP Kanwaljit Soin as early as 1996.

Aware has long argued that much of the Women’s Charter should be rethought, including taking into account an increasing number of transnational marriages.

In 2010, we suggested numerous reforms, including the establishment of a central body to administer maintenance payments, a reduction in the time bars to divorce, and shorter timeframes for divorce in cases of desertion or separation.

We have also suggested that the statute be renamed Family Charter to more accurately reflect its content, as its provisions cover many aspects of marital and family law.

The existing name can give the misleading impression that it protects only women against men, when in fact most of its regime – including protection against family violence – rightly applies on a gender-neutral basis.

By Jolene Tan (Ms), Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research)

This letter was first published in the Straits Times Forum on 26 April 2014.

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