Comment: Women’s Charter remains an important guardrail for marriage and family in S’pore


By Sun Xueling, Minister of State (Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of Education)

Strong families are the foundation for a resilient nation. And strong marriages make for strong families. The recent amendments to the Women’s Charter reflect the PAP Government’s firm belief in this. 

With the changes, more support will be given to couples at the start of the marriage.  But we recognise that marriages do fail, and that is when it gets distressing. While we aim to support as many marriages as possible, some couples will still proceed with divorce.

And that is why we made a significant move, to introduce divorce by mutual agreement (DMA), as a sixth fact to prove the irretrievable breakdown of marriage. This aims to reduce acrimony, promote child-centricity while recognising the equal roles men and women play in marriage outcomes.

It recognises that a marriage requires two hands to clap. Both husband and wife are accountable for the outcome of a marriage. DMA focuses on joint responsibility and where the marriage has broken down irretrievably, instead of setting up the parties as adversaries which tends to be the current process, the process is recast, and parties set in the right frame to jointly consider their children and financial affairs. Issues around their children and co-parenting, division of matrimonial assets and maintenance can then be discussed with less acrimony and better ensure positive outcomes post-divorce. 

The change came about because since Aug 2020, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has conducted open, honest dialogues with divorcees, social workers, academics, family lawyers, religious leaders and community organisations to understand the pain points within the divorce regime. 

Participants shared that when their marriages had irretrievably broken down, it would have helped if the process was less acrimonious. To prove fault-based facts, such as adultery or unreasonable behaviour, couples had to lay blame on each other, a distressing situation where past hurts were revisited repeatedly. 

Family lawyers, counsellors and social workers also highlighted that a more amicable process would help put couples in a better frame of mind to tackle ancillary issues, such as child-care and financial arrangements.

Hence, this new fact adopts a lens of care that can help families move on in a positive way if marriages break down.  This approach was also recommended by the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System, an inter-agency committee spearheaded by MSF and Ministry of Law, in 2019. 

This amendment should also be seen in totality with the other amendments and the various initiatives that the PAP Government has put in place to support families, such as the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships, which takes a holistic look at the family support ecosystem. 

Legislation cannot make strong families, but a whole of community support can help families grow and flourish.

However progressive this amendment may be, divorce is and must be a last resort. Where possible, we aim to save the marriage, help couples resolve their issues or even better: identify issues before things come to a head.

Women’s Charter focuses on the best interest of the children, with greater equality between the sexes as society evolves

The Charter covers several key areas in marriage and divorce, namely, rights and responsibilities of both parties in marriage; division of matrimonial assets; maintenance; and child custody, care and control, and access. 

I see the provisions within the Charter as focusing on just outcomes especially in divorce, bearing in mind the best interest of the children. We are also generally moving towards greater equality between the sexes, though this may not be immediately obvious.

For example, in the division of matrimonial assets, the court is concerned with ensuring the just and equitable division of the material gains of the marital partnership between the spouses.  The philosophy underlying the principle is that mutual respect must be accorded for spousal contributions, whether in the economic or homemaking spheres, as both roles are equally fundamental to the well-being of a marital partnership. 

Maintenance of children follows the principle that parents are equally duty bound to maintain their children, although their precise obligations may differ depending on their means and capacities. In the area of child custody, care and control, and access, the paramount consideration is the child’s welfare.

Equality between the sexes may seem more elusive in spousal maintenance provisions, but it is largely attributable to continued social trends of more women than men giving up their careers for their families, despite dual-income families increasingly being the norm. 

While women are in a much better position today, realities on the ground are that it is more likely for the wife to give up her career for her family, while her husband continues working. Hence, post-divorce, women are more likely to be financially dependent. This is not what we wish for it to be, but rather this is what we see happening on the ground. Given that women can become disproportionately dependent parties in a marriage, as are incapacitated husbands, the law allows for these groups to apply for maintenance.

Even so, the ex-wife is not granted maintenance as of right. If the court assesses that she would have sufficient financial resources post-divorce, the court can decide not to grant her any maintenance.

The recent amendments with regard to child access orders would likely benefit more men than women. During my Meet-the-People sessions, parents with child access issues are almost always fathers. Here is another instance where the Charter inadvertently helps one gender more than the other but that does not make it gender-biased.

We have progressed but we have not yet arrived

There have been proposals to rename the Charter.

We have made much progress since its enactment in 1961. Even, before the recent amendments, the Women’s Charter has been described by Law Professor Leong Wai Kum as a “shining piece of legislation”.

Through the latest amendments, archaic portions of the Charter were updated to reflect the current position of women in our society – that of having the same rights, privileges, powers, capacities, duties and liabilities as men.

However, we are not there yet. 

While Singapore women today are better educated with better employment opportunities, there are still women who require the protection of the Charter and still lag in terms of earning power and career advancement. And women are still the more likely victims of family violence. Renaming it now may send the wrong signal that we have somehow “arrived”, and so the proposal to rename the Charter should be for the future, when the social status and expectations of men and women have indeed become equal. 

Laws evolve in tandem with societal changes, and the Women’s Charter is no exception. 

At its heart, the Women’s Charter is meant to be our guardrail for the institutions of marriage and family. But I hope that we can move beyond legislation and together with strong community support, make Singapore a place where families grow and thrive.

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Cover photo credit: Families For Life Facebook.