December 8th, 2015

Women’s Charter should be Family Charter

This post was originally published as a letter in The Straits Times on Dec 8, 2015. 

law-portalThe Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) recently conducted a public consultation on the Women’s Charter (“Proposed maintenance for ex-husbands to go ahead”; Dec 8).

The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) applauds MSF’s move in consolidating and publicly responding to the feedback received, as this promotes transparency and citizen participation in policymaking.

However, further changes to the Women’s Charter are needed.

First, spousal maintenance should be based on fairness and need, not gender.

Married individuals who take on domestic and caregiving work make economic sacrifices which boost their spouse’s earning power. These effects last even if the marriage ends. Spousal maintenance is only fair in such cases.

Most maintenance orders should still be made in favour of women, with 273,000 women out of the labour force due to family responsibilities, compared with 12,200 men.

But we should value and support anyone who performs domestic work and caregiving, regardless of their gender. Male caregiving should be encouraged, not devalued.

Second, for live-in partners experiencing domestic violence, MSF suggested that the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) is an adequate substitute for personal protection orders (PPOs).

However, this is not sufficient. Unlike breaches of PPOs, breaches of POHA orders are not seizable.

If protection cannot be provided by the Women’s Charter regime, one solution could be to make breaches of POHA orders seizable.

The Women’s Charter regime should cover domestic violence rather than family violence. It should be possible for not just live-in partners but also tenants or domestic workers to obtain PPOs against anyone in their household.

We also question why MSF will allow under-21s to apply for PPOs only if they are or have previously been married. Everyone should be able to access protection from domestic violence, regardless of age or marital status.

Finally, we support the calls for the Women’s Charter to be renamed. Five decades ago, this law made ground-breaking advances for women, such as abolishing polygamy for non-Muslim marriages, confirming that women can hold property and ensuring we can keep our birth names on marriage.

Today, happily, we can take those matters for granted. Aside from spousal maintenance, the Charter’s family law and anti-violence provisions are gender-neutral. Thus, “Family Charter” is a more accurate and less polarising name.

Jolene Tan (Ms)

Senior Manager

Programmes and Communications

Association of Women for Action and Research

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