'Head of household' concept has no place in policy

The Ministry of Finance recently stated its intention to enhance "care support" so that Singaporeans can better "balance aspirations in work and family life". 

This goal cannot be achieved without more equal sharing of domestic responsibilities between women and men. 

Indeed, the importance of shifting gender roles became clear when paternity leave took pride of place in last year's National Day Rally speech.

Yet, troublingly, the sexist idea of a "head of the household", often presumed to be male, still features in policy decisions.

Recently, a Singaporean woman and her non-citizen husband had their request to buy an HDB flat denied because of the husband's racial classification. 

On calling the HDB, the woman was told that to determine the ethnicity of the household, HDB would look at the "head of the household", who was male. 

Fortunately, she persuaded HDB to reclassify the household based on her ethnicity instead. 

But it is clear that in the absence of special appeals, the HDB proceeds on the default basis of a man as the "head of the household".

The persistence of the concept is also illustrated by statistics on the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) website.

In 2010, MSF classified 78.4 per cent of households as headed by a man.  

The idea that households inevitably have a "head" reflects a hierarchical view of relationships between family members, where a male economic breadwinner has higher status and greater authority than the female unpaid carer. 

This ideological view is out of step with reality. Nearly half of married couples draw a dual income.

Moreover, in associating authority and status with employment, the "head of household" concept devalues caregiving - a retrograde step in the effort to promote shared parenting and work-life balance.

Families are varied, and healthy family relationships are characterised by mutuality. The experiences and opinions of every family member matter equally.

Decisions should be made collaboratively, not imposed by one authority figure. Authority should certainly not be based on gender.

In 2011, when reviewing Singapore's progress in fulfilling its legal obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), the United Nations Cedaw Committee highlighted "the head of the household" as a "discriminatory cultural concept" that should be abolished.

We, too, urge the Government to eliminate the concept from policy.

Jolene Tan (Ms)

Senior Manager

Programmes and Communications

Association of Women for Action and Research