Monday, October 18, 2010

On Women's Charter: What About the Menz!?

This is the final week Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) is seeking public feedback for the draft Women's Charter (Amendment) Bill 2010. You can download the consultation paper (PDF) that lays out the proposed changes in simple language, or attempt the Amendment Bill (PDF).

Some of the more interesting parts of the proposed amendments are the creation of Children's Development Account where a portion of divorcing parents' shared assets is automatically channelled into for the children involved. Courts will also be empowered variously to crack down on maintenance defaulters. My personal favourite is that "divorcees who are remarrying will be required to declare in the presence of their new spouses, whether they have any maintenance arrears towards their ex-wife or children from their previous marriage(s)."

We on the farm strongly encourage everyone to give MCYS your opinion on changes to the Women's Charter. Now, however, the animals and I are departing from our usual farming duties to present a roundtable discussion we have on the Women's Charter. Gentle readers are free to steal our ideas and submit them officially, because it's very hard for us to explain why farm animals are so concerned about the Charter.

Roundtable Discussion.

Contrary to popular belief of who we are, it is the belief here on the farm that the biggest lacuna in the Amendment Bill is in its maintaining the alimony-only-to-women stance. Last year, Kanwaljit Soin reintroduced the idea of revising the Women's Charter Act to a Family Charter Act [ed: AWARE used to host "Women's Charter to Family Charter" speech transcript here, but not anymore; after the cut, we offer you instead an excerpt of a parliamentary debate by Dr Soin from 1996 when she first introduced the idea], in which maintenance is adjusted to allow husbands to claim maintenance should their wives be the higher earning spouse--I believe it's for shared custody cases.

I think this makes some sense as roles change, and men begin to step up in their caregiving roles. Not to mention, perhaps with such a system in place, we can begin to drop any machoistic shame of being primary care-givers. An adjustment to leave entitlement will also make especial sense for single fathers.

If we focus on the benefit of the children, rather than What About The Menz, there's probably much more that can be done in terms of this bill as well, perhaps latching onto expanding benefits to single parents.

Oh My Goat:
I think there are also men who have some pretty reasonable issues with the Women's Charter. It's not to say that it's unnecessary - it was revolutionary as far as its protection of women was concerned - but there are parts of it that need to evolve with the times.

Maintenance payments, for one, need to be fairer - it doesn't make sense for a father to pay maintenance to a wife (note: not for the child, but for the wife, which is a separate claim altogether) who out-earns him or is more than capable of caring for herself. It was probably unheard of when the Charter was introduced, but it's not so uncommon nowadays.

If you're a husband living a lower middle class sort of existence, your finances are more worse off after a divorce. You frequently find yourself homeless, likely not earning enough to rent another flat and on top of that, you have legal fees and maintenance payments. It's what it is, and yes, men ought to be responsible for their children, but if you're not earning much to start with, it can make you feel like you have the rough end of the deal.

Magical Chicken:
Wholly agree with Oh My Goat. There's no reason whatsoever why gender should become a blanket proxy for financial capacity and contributions, when these are matters which can be reasonably easily assessed by a judge in and of themselves. I was really glad to see Kanwaljit Soin raise this last year. It's actually rather surprising that men (since they are the demographic disadvantaged by the status quo) haven't organised to push for appropriate change themselves. I wonder if there might be some kind of conflict for some men between wanting to support traditional notions of masculinity to shore up their sense of social status, and what's in their actual financial interests. Another example of how patriarchy is an ideology which fucks us all up.

Badly Drawn Pig:
This is why I think the law can take a progressive lead on things. It shouldn't always be a case of the majority, sometimes unaware or unconscious, society setting the pace of things. The law and the government can, in fact, recognise that certain change would be beneficial - I think we've actually got this in practice in many other areas - and effect amendments that would pave the way to mindset changes. A society where legal mechanisms are in place for husbands' receiving maintenance, is a largely different one in which maintenance is afforded only to the wives. We cannot possibly deny the fact that such an arrangement puts ideas in the minds of people, as often is the case such as Rony Tan, who refuses to retract his foul statement on gay people simply because a legal clause is actually in place that in principle criminalises gay men sex.

Like Oh My Goat has said, my primary problem with the Women's Charter is the arbitrary provision requiring a man to maintain his wife, irrespective of the fact that she may have a greater earning capacity. I think the Court now deals with this issue by varying the quantum of maintenance, but I don't think this is enough in the circumstances since the wife will always have the right to apply to Court for maintenance. I think the issue of parity must cut both ways and the law needs to be amended to reflect this.
Second, re: maintenance for the child. Legally, both parents are obliged to maintain the child, but perhaps more can be done by the law in a situation where the man's earning capacity is lower than his wife. As Oh My Goat says, there are many fathers out there who feel they've drawn the short straw, especially keeping in mind that care and control of the child usually is awarded to the mother (with the father being granted the right of access) unless there are extenuating circumstances. I would imagine this is really painful in itself.
However, it needs to be kept it mind that there is only so much money to go around, especially if the father is earning significantly less, or not at all (as was the case in the article). In these situations, inevitably, maintenance payments are going to be a financial strain, along with legal fees, bills and rent etc. I don't think it's got anything to do with not wanting to help the child - it's not having adequate means to do so, and this is a salient factor which needs to be expressly considered.
(But of course with checks to prevent the other side of the coin - recalcitrant fathers who withhold maintenance payments for whatever reason.)

After the cut, read the brilliant parliamentary debate excerpt by the woman who started the ball rolling for all of us, former-NMP and a personal heroine for us on the farm, Dr Kanwaljit Soin; taken from Yawning Bread:

.... I fail to understand the [Minister Abdullah Tarmugi's] stand in the area of maintenance for husbands. I see contradictions in adopting the position of allowing wives to claim maintenance from their husbands but disallowing husbands to do the same. Sir, let me explain.

The Women's Charter was first passed in September 1961 and at that time it was hailed as a very progressive piece of legislation. One of the main reasons for labelling it thus was section 45 which laid out the equal rights and duties of a husband and wife, and I stress, equal rights and duties of a husband and wife.

I would like to read this section 45 to refresh the memories of some Members who seem to have forgotten it.

(1) Upon the solemnisation of marriage, the husband and wife shall be mutually bound to cooperate with each other in safeguarding the interests of the union and in caring and providing for the children.

(2) The husband and wife shall have the right separately to engage in any trade or profession or in social activities.

(3) The wife shall have the right to use her own surname and name separately.

(4) The husband and wife shall have equal rights in the running of the matrimonial household.

Thus, as far back as 1961, the Women's Charter clearly propounded the idea of marriage as an equal partnership between a man and a woman.

Thirty-five years have rolled by and a whole new generation has grown up. New realities have emerged which are in keeping with the original enlightened section 45 of the Women's Charter but the sad fact is that the present repeal and re-enactment of section 61 is out of step with section 45 of the Women's Charter.

The re-enacted section 61 allows a wife to claim maintenance from her husband but does not allow a husband to have the same right. This is not only at variance with section 45 but is also incongruous with today's reality of economically active wives. There is no rational distinction between a financially able husband and an equally financially able wife. 40% of married couples have both wives and husbands working for a living. 80% of new brides are working and among the younger couples, one-third of the brides are marrying grooms with lower educational qualifications and presumably these brides are therefore earning more than the grooms. In this changed socio-economic context, why are wives not being asked to shoulder the responsibility of supporting their husbands financially? If the Minister does not want to take such a bold but necessary step, then he may wish to consider a compromise, and politics is full of compromises, and follow the example of the Malaysian law which gives limited rights to the husband to claim maintenance from his wife when he is ill or incapacitated. During the Select Committee hearings, I think five representors representing women's groups expressed the view that maintenance to husbands, especially in appropriate cases, should be given. These women's groups represent the views of a wide cross section of women.

Considering the changed socio-economic context of 1996 as compared to 1961, and considering that women's groups generally want the law to be changed, especially when husbands are disabled or sick, I fail to understand the reluctance and resistance of the Minister to take cognizance of this. Besides ignoring many women's views, there are wider implications of not allowing husbands to claim maintenance from their wives.

If a woman is capable of supporting her husband or her former husband who needs maintenance, especially if he is sick or disabled, then why are we allowing the woman to get away without fulfilling her responsibility? If a woman earns a good income but does not voluntarily want to support an ill husband, why should this burden then fall on society and the taxpayers while the woman gets away scot-free? A comparison can be made with the Maintenance of Parents Act where unfilial children have to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining their parents and not leaving ti to society in general.

Let me give you one concrete example. Wife who is is a stockbroker is earning a lot of money but she does not get along well with her husband who happens to be sick and has kidney disease and therefore is unable to work. The husband and wife, as I said, do not get along well and so the wife does not want to support him. Why should the sick husband not be able to claim maintenance from his wife but instead he has to turn to Medifund or some other publicly financed agency to help him in his health care costs and for his daily care and needs? Why should society have to maintain the husband when the wife or the ex-wife is shirking this responsibility but can afford it?

Therefore, Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, to take on our rightful responsibility towards our husbands and to consolidate the idea of marriage as a partnership, many individual Singaporean women, women's groups and I want husbands, especially those who are sick and disabled, to be able to claim maintenance from their wives. However, the Minister is not listening to us. And this situation puts us in a difficult and no-win position because as long as this discrimination exists in law, women will be accused of not shouldering their responsibilities. This is manifested in some of the letters which are written to the Straits Times complaining that since women do not have to maintain husbands, women should not be asking for equality of treatment in other fields. Through no fault of ours and because the Government does not want to listen to us, the women of Singapore have to put up with the barbed insults of some Singaporean men. I would therefore like to request the Minister to equalise the situation in the law by just changing the word "wife" to "spouse" and that is all the Minister will have to do. And if at this time there are very few husbands who would want to claim maintenance from their wives, so be it.

Some of the male MPs have told me that they would never accept maintenance from a woman as this would hurt their male pride. To them, I would like to say that for the truly needy husbands much more than their male pride will be hurt if they get no maintenance from their wives when they desperately need it. Also, what will be the effect on the children of these families when mothers are seen to be able to get away without supporting the sick or disabled husbands and instead the children have to see their fathers turning to public agencies for help as their mothers are not being legislated to help these needy husbands? We should never let this happen, Mr Deputy Speaker.

If the Minister's reply to this is that wives can be persuaded to support their husbands without appropriate legislation, then I would like to ask the Minister why do we need legislation for husbands to maintain their wives? Why do we not also rely on persuasion? It is precisely because persuasion alone without legislation is insufficient to do the job. Surely the Minister does not believe that women are morally more upright than men and therefore can be easily subject to persuasion and do not need legislation.

I would really like an extensive reply from the Minister on this score because the women of Singapore want to know why this responsibility is being denied to them. (Dr Kanwaljit Soin, 27 Aug 1996.)

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