The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) received about 260 instances of feedback, the majority of which expressed support for the amendments to the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill 2016. The public consultation was conducted between 19 October and 8 November 2015. Besides the public, groups such as the Families for Life Council, the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, the Association of Women for Action and Research and the Law Society of Singapore also shared their views on the key amendments to the Bill.
Prior to the public consultation, MSF had consulted key stakeholders, and took into account the recommendations of the Family Justice Committee (FJC) which focused on assisting divorcing and divorced families. MSF also held dialogue sessions and obtained inputs on emerging family issues from women’s groups, VWOs and public sector agencies that work on support for families and protection of women and girls.
The public favoured the mandatory parenting programme (MPP) and were particularly supportive of its focus on putting the child’s interest first in divorce. They also supported the proposal to void Marriages of Convenience and to enhance the protection for women, girls, residents at places of safety and professionals engaged in protection work.
MSF received a number of feedback on the issue of allowing maintenance for incapacitated men who cannot work. Some said that this was a step in the right direction while other contributors had reservations.
MSF would like to thank members of public and key stakeholders who provided feedback. MSF has taken the feedback into consideration in reviewing the proposed Bill. The summary of feedback can be found on the REACH website and the attached Appendix.
PUBLIC CONSULTATION ON WOMEN’S CHARTER (AMENDMENT) BILL 2016
SUMMARY OF FEEDBACK
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) sought public feedback on amendments to the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill 2016 from 19 October to 8 November 2015. We received approximately 260 feedback inputs from individuals and groups, including the Families for Life Council, the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, the Association of Women for Action and Research and the Law Society of Singapore. MSF would like to thank all individuals and organisations who had taken the time to pen their comments and suggestions.
Prior to the public consultation, MSF had consulted key stakeholders, and took into account the recommendations of the Family Justice Committee (FJC) which focused on assisting divorcing and divorced families. MSF also held consultation sessions and obtained inputs on emerging family issues from women’s groups, VWOs and public sector agencies that work with families and protection of women and girls.
The main issues raised in the public consultation, and our response are detailed below.
Mandatory Parenting Programme
(I) Putting the child’s interest first in divorce through a mandatory parenting programme for divorcing parents
There was support for the mandatory parenting programme (MPP) and its focus on welfare of the child.
Some said that MPP should be made compulsory regardless of whether parents are able to agree on the divorce and all ancillary matters, as divorce would have an impact on children. The new MPP is intended for parties who cannot agree on the divorce or ancillary matters, as their divorce proceedings could become acrimonious and more adversely affect the children. We will monitor the programme further after it starts in 2016. Additionally, the courts now have the power at any time during the divorce proceedings to direct the children to attend counselling where necessary. The courts will also now have the powers to direct them to family support programmes.
There were suggestions that spouses who face family violence should be exempted from MPP for their personal safety. Divorcing parents, whether or not there is a history of family violence, have the option to attend the MPP separately. MPP provides a platform for counsellors to triage and surface family violence especially when both perpetrators and victims may not have had an avenue to articulate or be aware of its impact on the family.
Some contributors opined that the MPP would be used by defendants as a tactic to “delay” or “stall” divorce proceedings. This is unlikely as the courts will be empowered to allow divorce proceedings to continue where the Court deems fit even if a defendant has not completed the MPP.
Voiding Marriages of Convenience (MOCs)
(II) Voiding a marriage that is a marriage of convenience under section 57C of the Immigration Act.
Contributors strongly supported the voiding of MOCs, which is an offence under section 57C of the Immigration Act.
Maintenance issues and maintenance for incapacitated men
(III) Allowing maintenance for incapacitated men who cannot work
A number of inputs was received on the proposed amendment. Contributors felt that it was a step in the right direction. There were suggestions to include men who gave up their careers to be house-husbands. Several felt that maintenance should be extended to men in the same manner as for women, given the progress of women in today’s society.
Other contributors felt that men are the traditional breadwinners of the family and that our society is not ready to accept that women have the same responsibility as men to support their spouse/ex-spouse.
Under the Women’s Charter, maintenance may be ordered for two broad categories of persons. The first is maintenance for children. Both fathers and mothers are responsible for maintaining or contributing to the maintenance of their children, even after a divorce and whether or not they have custody of the children. Either parent may therefore seek child-maintenance from the other parent, and the courts will take into account various factors such as the financial circumstances of both parents, and the needs of the children. The second category of maintenance is for a spouse/ex-spouse, which is the focus of the proposed amendment. MSF recognises and strongly supports women’s development in Singapore. We also recognise that there is a growing number of house husbands who leave their jobs post-marriage to look after the children and household. Nonetheless, the vast majority of men continue to work after having children. On balance, MSF has assessed that for now, the proposed spousal maintenance for incapacitated men who cannot work and maintain themselves is appropriate for both men and women.
There were also some women who wondered if they could afford to maintain their husbands or ex-husbands while struggling to provide for their children on a single income. As with a man’s responsibility to pay spousal maintenance for a wife, the Court will consider all the circumstances of the case, including a wife’s financial circumstances and needs of the family, before ordering maintenance for an incapacitated husband or ex-husband.
There was a high number of responses received about other maintenance-related issues. Some felt that more could be done to help women whose husbands or ex-husbands default on maintenance payments. There is a high proportion of men who default who do not have the means to pay, including those who are incarcerated. MSF has worked with the Community Justice Centre (CJC) to refer divorcees in need to the nearest Social Service Office (SSO) for timely financial assistance.
However, there are also cases who are able to pay but refuse to do so. MSF amended the Women’s Charter in 2011 to enhance measures that can be taken against defaulters. The courts may make orders to require the defaulter to furnish a banker’s guarantee, undergo financial counselling or perform community service. The courts may also request the defaulter’s employer to directly pay for the maintenance out of his wages, and/or sentence the defaulter to a jail term. Defaulters may also be reported to DP SME Commercial Credit Bureau, which could affect their ability to take loans in future. Between June 2011 and July 2015, DP SME Commercial Credit Bureau has received 217 cases, of which 80% have successfully received either partial or full payments. The maintenance payments received ranged from $50 to $180,000 and a total of $2.18m in unpaid payments have been recovered by DP SME Commercial Credit Bureau during this period.
Protection of Women, Girls and Professionals
(IV) Enhancing protection for women, girls, residents at places of safety and professionals engaged in protection work
There was strong support for the proposed amendments.
One specific suggestion was to extend personal protection orders (PPO), domestic exclusion orders and mandatory counselling orders to live-in partners. The Government is sympathetic towards the plight of these victims. A cohabitee can seek protection under the provisions of the Penal Code and the Protection from Harassment Act. Where there are children involved in the context of a cohabitating relationship, the child can be protected under the Children and Young Persons Act.
MSF has considered including live-in partners within the coverage of the Women’s Charter. However, doing so, will affect how a family is defined and viewed by the larger society. This also has impact on other pieces of legislation which reference family and marriage. Notwithstanding this, MSF is working with the relevant agencies and stakeholders to enhance support for victims.
A few contributors felt that the bill should be renamed “Family Charter” or “Marriage Charter” so that it is more gender-neutral. Similar feedback was also received during public consultations for the Committee for Family Justice’s interim recommendations in 2014.
Much progress has been made by Singaporean women. They are better educated, many are employed and can hold their own financially. However, there are still many vulnerable women and girls. The Women’s Charter therefore has provisions that relate to penalties for offences against women and girls, such as prostitution and trafficking. Hence, the Women’s Charter remains relevant and necessary.
That said, the core provisions of the Women’s Charter set out in statute how family and family relationships should be managed. It upholds the family. It does not have to be renamed as the Family Charter to signal our emphasis on family.
MSF would like to thank all who had contributed their comments during the public consultation period.