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Do women still need maintenance from their exes?

Published on May 4, 2014 7:06 AM
 
Maintenance is one small redress for women who have sacrificed their youth on the altar of unpaid domestic drudgery. It helps her get some financial satisfaction when a marriage breaks down and the spouse she sacrificed for, from whom she was hoping for support in her old age, leaves. -- ST FILE PHOTO: TERENCE TAN

Say you’re a hotshot company executive, or entrepreneur. You meet someone and marry at 28. At 30 the first child comes along. You give up your job and raise the child. Baby No. 2 comes when you’re 32.

When the youngest kid enters secondary school, you’re 45. You decide it’s time to stop being just Mum and start the business you’ve always wanted to. It takes off amazingly. You make $200,000 in Year 5, when you’re 48 and looking forward to your 20th wedding anniversary.

That’s when you find out your husband has a mistress with whom he has a six-month-old child. He wants a divorce.

In court, the father of your children is ordered to pay $2,000 a month in child support.

As for maintenance, the judge tells you that since you earn $200,000, which is, say, the same as your husband, you’re not entitled to any.

Maybe he says it’s chauvinistic to think that a woman like yourself, who can start a business from nothing to make a profit of $200,000 a year, needs maintenance from her ex-husband.

Would you celebrate that decision as one up for women’s power?

Or bemoan its unfairness for not recognising - and compensating you for - the years when you had zero income and zero Central Provident Fund savings and worked for free as cook, cleaner, chauffeur, tutor, coach and cheerleader, while your husband climbed the corporate ladder and salted away enough money to buy his mistress a condo?

I got to thinking about this issue, following suggestions that the Women’s Charter needs updating to become a more gender-neutral Women’s Charter.

This came following reports that a judge turned down a woman’s maintenance claim from her ex. She earned $215,900 a year, according to her 2010 income tax returns - slightly more than him.

I agree with the judge who said that maintenance isn’t the “unalloyed right” of women after a divorce. I also agree that the Women’s Charter should be made gender-neutral into a Marriage Charter or some such, so that both spouses are entitled to similar benefits.

But I disagree with the underlying argument of the judge.

According to The Straits Times report: "Justice Choo Han Teck said a woman who is truly independent and equal in a marriage would not need patronising gestures of maintenance, which belie 'deep chauvinistic thinking'.

"He noted the idea for women to seek maintenance evolved out of the 1961 Women's Charter that was passed to protect women when many were housewives supported by their husbands.

"But this was 'yoked to an old attitude that should be changed', he said. 'If it were to continue even where the protection is no longer needed, it might lead to the suppression of women in the name of chivalry.' "

The judge’s intentions are noble. The trouble is that those old attitudes are still so prevalent, removing the maintenance provision would be grossly unfair to women, especially housewives.

Is a man and woman independent and equal in a marriage?

Not as long as societal expectations fall on women to be the main caregiver to children and aged old at home.

A man and woman do not have equal economic power when work outside a home is expected to come with pay and medical benefits, whereas work within a home - often done by women - is unpaid.

To me, the maintenance issue is not just about protecting women who earn less.

Maintenance is one small redress for women who have sacrificed their youth on the altar of unpaid domestic drudgery. It helps her get some financial satisfaction when a marriage breaks down and the spouse she sacrificed for, from whom she was hoping for support in her old age, leaves.

Should men then be entitled to claim maintenance from his wealthier wife in a divorce?

I would say yes - but only if he were a stay-at-home dad and carried out all those domestic chores, unpaid, while she brought home the bacon. Her payment of maintenance to him would be compensation for his opportunity cost of not having a paid job over the years.

The current provision that allows a woman to claim maintenance from her ex-husband in a divorce, even if she is undeserving, isn’t ideal.

But in the absence of an economic system that values and pays for private domestic work, it is the only financial bulwark a housewife has against total financial penury after a divorce.

We remove that security at her peril.

muihoong@sph.com.sg