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Women’s Charter “not just for the elites”

Deborah Choo/

“This is a defining moment for our society and our women. We should be dancing the streets and celebrating family and marriage,” said Ms Constance Singam, ex-President of AWARE. She was speaking at AWARE’s book launch this afternoon at NUS Guild House which saw slightly more than a hundred turn up. The audience were mostly comprised of middle aged women or older who came in support to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Singapore Women’s Charter.

Leong Wai Kum (left) and Theresa Devasahayam (right)

AWARE launched two books today. The first book is The Singapore Women’s Charter 50 Questions which addresses the legal aspects answered by family lawyer Ms Leong Wai Kum. The second is the Singapore Women’s Charter: Rules, Responsibility and Rights in Marriage penned by Ms Theresa Devasahayam, Gender Studies Programme Coordinator, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) which addressed the social and political aspects of the Charter.

Ambassador K Kesavapany, Director, ISEAS, revealed that the purpose of publishing these two books is with the main intentions of simplifying the Charter for the common people at large to be able to comprehend and hence recognize their rights better. “It should not be just for the elites,” he said. That is also the reason why the books come in all four languages – English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

The Women’s Charter was enacted in 1961 by the ruling party, People’s Action Party which promised a complete review of the family laws two years before.

Guest of Honor Minister Lim Hwee Hua, Second Minister for Finance and Second Minister for Transport referred to the Charter as a “key statue” as it not only facilitated family roles but more prominently, the Charter was the first legal guarantee to gender equality as it outlawed polygamy. Other legal rights it gave women are the rights to own property, conduct trade and receive divorce settlements. She also credited the PAP for its efforts such as national healthcare system, housing and accessible education that brought forth the equality of Singaporean women today. Ms Lim noted that Singapore has 23.4 percent of women in parliament which is above the international average of 19 percent. Asserting that women took huge strides in the economic status as well, she said that last year saw 72 percent of women in the prime working ages of 25 to 54 years old in the workforce, and the percentages of women in high position jobs are on the rise.

Though Ms Lim applauded the recent amendments in January this year to the Women’s’ Charter, she called for these three issues to be addressed: (1) To mitigate the impact of divorce, (2) Look into women’s’ access to maintenance fees, and (3) domestic violence.

“The Women’s Charter is by no means perfect but it is pretty darn good in my opinion,” said Ms Leong who was also one of its authors. She called Section 46 of the Charter (which states that in every marriage, both husband and wife should be involved in an equal and corporative partnership for mutual benefit) a “remarkable provision” as it paints the ideal picture of what a marriage should be but does not enforce any punishment on the couple should any party fail in their duties.

“The law should encourage and cajole both parties in regards to their contribution as of equal values, regardless of whether it brings home the bacon or not. Homemaking, for example, should be recognized as an equal contribution,” Ms Leong advocated. She said that as the law outlines the fundamental moral values that should exist in any relationship, the legislation then carries more significance as it has the power to influence the most important relationship in one’s life. Ms Leong added that the Charter will result in a longer lasting marriage, stronger family units in which these builds a happy and secure environment for the children.

Even though the audience make-up was largely female, the Question and Answer session was surprisingly male-dominated. A “Mr Tan” questioned if the female candidates now fielded for top positions such as Director are merely for tokenism to hit the quota as one of the pieces of legislations included in the Charter, and whether the duties of household chores prevented capable female workers from committing more time to work.

Ms Devasahayam replied that although the ideal level is at 50 percent, there are countries which fall short of the quota. Clarifying that the system is aimed at removing discriminatory barriers, she said “There’re capable women out there with the suitable qualifications for the job. They should be given the positions and not let it be hawked by men.”

As for the issue on household chores, she said that it remains the cultural norm that women are the primary caregivers and are still saddled with a double burden of juggling both work and home duties.

Another audience member, Dr Eileen Wong posed the question of whether the women’s law should be written into the Constitution and what are the ramifications of this action. Ms Leong emphasized that she is not a Constitution lawyer before opining: “I suppose it’s good as the Constitution is the supreme law. This gives the women’s Charter more visibility and power.”

“If the law can lend its weight for all these things, why not?” added Associate Professor Mr Kirpal Singh, Director, Wee Kim Wee Centre, SMU.

Capping off the debate was Ms Nicole Tan, current President of AWARE who said that Singapore is a signatory of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). “If women can take a step into the corporate world, don’t you think men can should take a step into the kitchen and baby room?”