Women Must Now Provide for Ill, Disabled Husbands or Ex-husbands

Tuesday, Mar 01 2016 01:58 PM

SINGAPORE — It is now a legal responsibility for a woman to provide for her husband or ex-husband, should he be unable to work because of physical or mental disabilities or illness, as amendments to the Women’s Charter were passed in Parliament yesterday.

But the debate on the legislative changes also brought issues of gender equality and neutrality to the fore, as Members of Parliament (MPs) weighed in on the progress women have made when it comes to their earning power and labour participation rates.

Other changes under the amended law include mandating divorcing couples with minor children to attend a parenting programme before they split, if they are unable to agree on all issues concerning their divorce. Marriages of convenience can also be voided, while vulnerable women will get new community-based care options, such as getting support in the home environment of a “fit individual”, such as a relative or friend.

On maintenance, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) is introducing Maintenance Record Officers who can be appointed by a court to deal with those who shirk payment without reason. In response to queries, a ministry spokesperson said most men honour their maintenance obligations although they do not have figures on recalcitrant defaulters.

The Women’s Charter was enacted in 1961 to protect women and govern marriage and divorce matters here. The previous amendment was made in 2011 to strengthen the enforcement of maintenance orders through more sanction options, among other things.

During the debate, some MPs argued for even more support for some men that go beyond the latest changes.

Noting that more men are choosing to stay at home while their wives go to work, Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) said laws should be made “a little more equal” by offering these husbands the same protection.

Agreeing, Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) added that spousal maintenance should be based on fairness, not gender. Men who make “economic sacrifices to take a primary role in household labour and caregiving” should be entitled to maintenance too, he added.

Other MPs, however, said women still have some way to go in achieving parity with men, despite having made great strides in recent years.

Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) said that while the female labour force participation rate is increasing, the figures for women aged between 25 and 39 are still lagging — likely because they left work in their prime years to care for their family. Despite women’s “strong advancement” since the law was enacted, “there are still several areas where women lag behind men ... salary, senior management, decision-making roles in organisations including boards”, she added.

Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC), who pointed out that women are also financially more vulnerable after a divorce, urged caution against further moves to let other groups of men claim maintenance.

Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC) also questioned if the amended laws make it “doubly difficult” for women to look after their children and the long-term financial needs of the incapacitated ex-husband.

Other suggestions raised included taking a more proactive approach or introducing new requirements to help single unwed parents claim child maintenance.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin also reiterated that his ministry will not rename the Act with a gender-neutral term such as the “Family Charter” as “our society is not quite fully ready for the gender neutrality on the spousal maintenance front”.

“The emphasis on the family remains. Just because we do not call it a ‘Family Charter’ does not in itself mean that we are not placing the emphasis on family. For all intents and purposes, the bulk of what we are setting out in the Women’s Charter is aimed at supporting families,” he said.

The amended laws will also make it an offence to operate or maintain any website or “remote communication service” that offers or facilitates the provision of sexual services by women or girls for payment. If convicted, first-time offenders will be fined up to S$3,000 or jailed up to three years or both.

BY SIAU MING EN

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