Forum: Do more to help migrant spouses in divorce cases

During the circuit breaker period, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) saw an unprecedented spike in the number of calls to the Women's Helpline.

Like the many cases handled by family lawyers last year, a large number of calls related to experiences of family violence and divorce (Lawyers see rise in 2020 family law cases due to Covid-19, Jan 25).

Among the women who called the helpline were migrant women married to Singaporean men. These women face unique challenges in navigating the local divorce system.

First, they need to find a way to stay in Singapore while their divorces are ongoing in order to contest divorce claims. Their husbands could stop renewing their long-term visit passes before or during divorce, leaving migrant spouses with a limited time to remain in the country. This hampers their ability to negotiate a favourable divorce outcome. (Those who cannot retain legal counsel in Singapore to represent them in the proceedings may secure an extension of their short-term visit pass to do so, but they cannot work while on such a pass.)

Second, securing custody of their Singaporean children is challenging for migrant mothers if they cannot secure long-term residency.

Courts usually rule it to be in the best interest of children to stay in Singapore so they can derive the benefits of their citizenship.

According to a study on transnational divorces filed in the Singapore Family Courts between 2011 and 2015, joint custody was not the norm in divorce cases between Singaporeans and non-residents - unlike in cases between Singaporeans, where joint custody was made in 76 per cent of cases.

In fact, as many as 49 per cent of the divorce cases between citizens and non-residents resulted in sole custody orders, with almost half awarded to Singaporean fathers.

To protect migrant spouses during divorce, there could be a policy guaranteeing their right to remain in the country once proceedings begin, until at least the issuance of the Final Judgment of divorce.

Divorce processes can take months, even years, to resolve, so doing this would ensure that the migrant spouse has a fairer chance at contesting the divorce terms (if necessary), that is, by being physically present.

Migrant spouses should also be guaranteed of their right to work in the meantime, so they can support themselves.

Chong Ning Qian

Senior Executive Research

Association of Women for Action and Research

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