Friday, 25 July 2014

Proposal to tweak gender bias in Women's Charter

Maintenance could be awarded based on need and not just gender
By Janice Tai And Priscilla Goy, The Straits  Times, 24 Jul 2014

MEN who are incapacitated may soon be able to claim maintenance from the wives they are divorcing.

The idea of awarding maintenance based on need and not only gender is one of the proposed amendments to the Women's Charter that may be tabled in Parliament after public consultation ends early next year.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing revealed this yesterday after he joined a women's group dialogue at the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO).

The possible changes to the Women's Charter are based on recommendations released recently by the Family Justice Review Committee, which is reviewing the family justice system, and consultations with people.

They could also include greater support for wives whose former spouses default on maintenance payments.

For much of the last two decades, social activists and lawyers have pushed for the 1961 Women's Charter, which was designed to protect women's and children's rights, to be updated.

Currently, only women can claim alimony from their former spouses, regardless of their financial status.

Many people have argued that the times have changed, with more women able to work and support themselves. Some earn as much as, if not more, than their former spouses.

The debate to make maintenance laws gender-neutral resurfaced recently when High Court Judge Choo Han Teck rejected a woman's demand of $120,000 in maintenance from her former husband. She earned more than him, over $200,000 a year, and owned more than twice the assets he did.

The new provision should apply only if the men are incapacitated in some way, such as having severe disability, said Mr Chan.

Women who have not been getting money from former husbands, who have defaulted on payments, may get more help with housing and employment.

Family lawyer Malathi Das, first vice-president of the SCWO, said such support is necessary because some wives do not want to use the law to penalise their former spouses in case it has a negative effect on their children.

She said: "The stick is there but do you wield the stick? You have to bear in mind that whatever behaviour or options you choose will have an impact on the child."

The last time the Charter was amended was in 2011. New sanctions were introduced, beyond fines and imprisonment. These included financial counselling, community service and attachment of earnings orders, which make the person's employer pay the maintenance money from his monthly wage.

Yet, many divorcees still have to apply repeatedly for enforcement orders each time a former spouse fails to pay up.

From 2008 to 2011, about half of those granted enforcement orders had to apply for at least another order within two years.

Over the past two years, the Family Court has received 3,000 applications a year for enforcement of maintenance orders. About 60 per cent came from low-income families.

Mr Chan played down suggestions that the Charter should be renamed the "Family Charter" or "Marriage Charter" to reflect its modernisation.

He said: "The Women's Charter was started because it enshrines our posture towards the protection of women. Many of the things there remain as valid as when it was first conceived."

Centre for Fathering chief executive Peter Quek said it is "the right time" for the Charter to be updated, adding: "There are expectations of fathers to take on equal household responsibilities so they should be accorded the same rights."

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