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Giving unwed mothers more benefits an inclusive move

But Govt still needs to strike balance between helping them and supporting typical family unit

On Tuesday, unwed mothers achieved a measure of relief.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin announced that the Government is ready to extend the full 16-week maternity leave to them. Their children will also have access to a Child Development Account (CDA), a savings scheme meant to pay for childcare and healthcare costs.

These benefits were previously unavailable to unmarried mothers, despite years of campaigning by several MPs and women rights groups such as the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

Before, unwed mothers could get only eight weeks of maternity leave, paid for by their employers. In 2007, the Government said it would give the full 16 weeks - if the women walked down the aisle within a year of giving birth.

Still, for the latest move, the Government made it clear that the benefits are to help children of unwed mothers, not to condone having children out of wedlock.

Said Mr Tan: "I feel that we can do more to support their efforts to care for their children and reduce the disadvantages that their children may face at birth. These benefits are useful in the child's developmental or caregiving needs. They also support the unwed parent's efforts to provide for the child.

"The extension of these benefits to unwed parents does not undermine parenthood within marriage, which is something that we do encourage and it is still the prevalent social norm."


ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

Unmarried mothers will still not get the Baby Bonus cash gift and parenthood tax rebates that other singles, such as widows and divorcees, receive. They also have to wait until they turn 35 to buy a Housing Board flat under the singles scheme.

While calling Tuesday's announcement a step in the right direction, Aware's programmes and communications senior manager, Ms Jolene Tan, said being a single mother still carries stigma.

Aware is trying to change mindsets. Last month, it launched its most public campaign yet on single parents, whether divorced, widowed or unwed.

Posters have been put up along the North East MRT line, showing single parents with slogans such as: "What makes one mother less than another?"

That is also the key thrust of their video, which is screening at Queensway Shopping Centre, challenging viewers to guess which of the mothers talking about their children are not married.

HOW MUCH TO GIVE

The issue of how much assistance to provide single mothers is not unique to Singapore and vexes even countries like the United States.

The basic argument is that single motherhood is bad for society and for the child. Supporters of the traditional family unit cite studies which show that a two-parent household is better for children. Those who grow up with only one parent do less well academically and emotionally, partly because they are without the perspective of one gender.

The single-wage family is less financially stable. In America, links have even been drawn between crime and children of single-parent households. There is also a worry that legitimising single parenthood will add to the erosion of the traditional family unit.

This is a stance the Singapore Government has repeated time and again. In 2010, Mr Vivian Balakrishnan, then Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, said families are a social pillar of Singapore and that its breakdown is a key social issue.

In March last year, Mr Chan Chun Sing, then Minister for Social and Family Development, also said Singapore needs to find a balance between supporting unwed mothers and the policy to support parenthood within marriages.

The Government is still navigating that same tightrope today. As it has always said, the Government can only move as far as society is prepared to.

And it seems that most Singaporeans, while ready to give children of unmarried mothers a leg-up, are reluctant to accept such family structures as the norm.

A survey in 2012 of around 4,650 people by the National Population And Talent Division - part of the Prime Minister's Office - found that 80 per cent of single respondents and 85 per cent of married ones felt only married parents should have children.

Still, most were supportive of Tuesday's announcement. Comments on The Straits Times Facebook page were generally positive, and MP Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) said "everyone has welcomed the news".

MP Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) did receive some concerns.

He wrote on his Facebook yesterday that he was asked by two of his friends if this will encourage people to not marry. "Another asked if this will lead to more children out of wedlock," he wrote.

But there is also research which shows that it is not the number of parents which count, but the quality of family relationships. A child with parents at each other's throats could have worse developmental outcomes, than one being raised by one parent.

What is most important though, said National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan, is that single mothers often need more support than their married counterparts.

"When the child is raised in a single parent household, there might even be more need to step in, compared with children in intact family households."

While there are no figures for unwed mothers in Singapore, there were 446 babies registered in 2014 - almost a quarter of which were born to women below 19 - without the fathers' names. In 2013, there were 448 babies registered without their fathers' names.

A DIFFICULT CHOICE

There are still many challenges for unwed mothers, but those who spoke to The Straits Times highlighted three key ones - housing issues, employment and discrimination.

Unlike a divorcee or widow, an unwed mother and her child are not considered a family nucleus, and that means she cannot buy a flat. The only option is to wait until she turns 35, when she can purchase a flat under the singles scheme.

This means having to rent and may become a financial burden, or living with relatives, sometimes in overcrowded conditions.

"Is that living environment conducive and safe for a newborn child? Do other people living in the house pose a threat to the child?" asked Mrs Jennifer Heng, director of communication and education at DaySpring New Life Centre, which helps pregnant women in need of support.

Housing laws also affect divorced parents, especially low-income ones who had to sell their marital home to pay off housing loans, yet cannot rent a public flat for 30 months.

Employment is another issue.

Logistics executive Charlotte, 39, who asked to be identified by just her first name, had her son two years ago.

She said it is difficult to find a job that pays well enough to support mother and child - and pay for infant care - yet is flexible enough to give her the time to care for her son.

Worse, she experienced discrimination from her friends.

"When I said I was a single mum, I had reactions from disgusted looks to people asking me if the father was already married and why did I not use a condom," she said.

"Just because my ex left us before we got married, instead of after, my child and I get discriminated? It is very important for the Government to treat all parents equally."

Business owner Bibiana Neo, whose son was born a year ago, is glad that the extension of maternity leave will benefit those who come after her.

The 33-year-old, who now runs her own business, but was once in sales and marketing, found it hard to cope with a new baby by herself.

While her bosses allowed her to bring the baby to work or work from home, the demands of child-rearing ate into her performance.

Ms Neo believes she could have stayed in her job if she had been given the full maternity leave and CDA benefits.

"It is not right to separate unwed mothers and mothers who are married. Mothers are still mothers," she said.

WINDS OF CHANGE?

This week's announcement does not indicate a shift in Government policy away from the traditional family, said MP Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC), who has been speaking up for unwed mothers since he entered Parliament in 2006.

But he said it is still a significant move that should not be downplayed. "It was always 'no' before," said Mr Seah.

Asked if he thought Singapore could be ready for more change, he said: "I think sentiments are changing and the next big move could cover housing - that is probably the need, the next most important area.

"Am I saying that I support people to bear children out of wedlock? Of course, I don't.

"But if it so happens this way, we need to do what we can to help the mother and the child."

NUS' Professor Straughan believes that policies will change as long as there are gaps that children of unwed mothers fall into. "If the Government continues to focus on the well-being of the child, I won't be surprised if more will be done."

Aware also believes that the current changes are not only pragmatic but also "symbolically helpful".

Said Aware's Ms Tan: "This suggests that winds of change are blowing and we are hopeful the Government will review all policies that affect unwed parents."

While the Government's stance towards unwed mothers has not changed, the move to equalise maternity leave could persuade more to see that their children should be helped.

It could also slowly reduce stigma. Said Prof Straughan: "Raising a child in marriage is already so difficult, what more doing so without a father. Equal benefits all around will not shift our focus on marriage."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'Giving unwed mothers more benefits an inclusive move'. Print Edition | Subscribe