The Straits Times
Published on Dec 20, 2012

Charter's role to protect marriage has weakened


THE reasons leading to divorce naturally vary from case to case ("Nearly half of couples in survey considered divorce"; Dec 12) but the rise in divorce rates may be attributed to the fact that there are significantly more women initiating a divorce now.

Higher education standards achieved by women and the protection afforded under the Women's Charter are two possible reasons why more women are choosing to leave their spouses.

The Charter, passed in Parliament in 1961, has stayed largely intact for some 50 years.

Under the Charter, a woman seeking divorce, on top of generous asset division, can seek maintenance legally from her husband to maintain a living standard comparable to the one she enjoyed during marriage.

Generally, the same principle applies regardless of the grounds of divorce, even if the woman commits adultery or behaves so intolerably that her spouse cannot reasonably be expected to live with her.

Moreover, the Charter has an inherent gender bias which serves to protect wives at the expense of husbands.

For instance, husbands must offer maintenance to their wives but not the other way round, even if the wife is the breadwinner and the husband the homemaker in the marriage.

Such a bias was positive and made sense when the Charter was introduced as women then were mostly housewives and not as highly educated.

But women today, who comparably are much better educated and keenly aware of the advantage the Charter offers them in divorce, may realise that they may be financially better off after a divorce.

Coupled with greater social acceptance of divorcees, it is not surprising that more women are seeking to leave their spouses.

With a system that by default ensures that divorcees can potentially enjoy the same standard of living and a generous share of the matrimonial assets, the desire to make a marriage work also weakens.

The dynamic socio-economic changes that have upended gender roles and relationships today have turned the Charter into an incentive for women seeking divorce, and not a protector of the institution of marriage by protecting women.

To maintain its relevance as a protector of marriage, the Charter should be amended such that it is gender neutral.

Division of assets and monthly maintenance should be tied to the grounds of divorce.

Lawmakers must send a clear signal that anyone who divorces frivolously cannot abuse the system and expect to gain materially from it.

Oo Choon Peng