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Mon, Sep 20, 2010
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Pay up, if you love your children
by Clara Chow

MY NIECE, aged five, has never known her father.

When she was a few months old, he abandoned her and her mother. We’ve not seen hide nor hair of him ever since.

Subsequently, when the divorce papers filed by my sister had to be served, there was no known address to serve them to.

Last June, kids in kindergartens all over Singapore were busy making Father’s Day cards for their dads out of things like crepe paper and macaroni. My niece was one of them.

Now, whenever I feel like getting a drink in my sister’s home, that Father’s Day card (“I love you, Papa”) confronts me on the refrigerator door.

I flinch as though I’ve been slapped, and I feel I am made out of complicated things – like anger, indignation and, most of all, sadness.

So, when I read recently of the proposed changes to the Singapore Women’s Charter, to have tougher rules against men who fail to pay maintenance to their children and former wives, I felt a paradoxical grim glee.

To me, trimming the red tape to make it easier for struggling mothers to enforce court orders on maintenance, helping errant former spouses face up to their responsibilities with financial counselling, reporting them to credit bureaus, and – if all else fails – sending them to do community service, are all steps in the right direction.

In fact, if it were up to me, I would go further and say: Name ’em and shame ’em, the incorrigible defaulters who have no good reason to leave their young kids and former wives in the lurch. Put their names in a searchable database, available for all and sundry to look at.

After all, if these men can wash their hands of their dependants so cleanly and easily, then it says something about their characters – or lack, thereof.

Should potential employers or brides-to-be feel like doing background checks, they would then be able to ask some hard questions that will make these blokes squirm. Let them redeem themselves off that list by paying up promptly.

Of course, there are a number of men right now crying foul.

“The Women’s Charter is biased against men. The Government is helping our former wives take us to the cleaners,” they say.

Some ask with self-righteous incredulity: “She cheated on me, and I still have to pay?”

But they are missing the point. The legal and judicial system, historically speaking, is the work of a patriarchal society, tipping some odds in favour of men.

This being so, the Women’s Charter is in place to protect the weak and helpless: The children who have already been deprived of a father figure; who run the risk of going hungry, in some cases.

If you truly love your children, even if your former wife is a money-thirsting harpy who wants more and more until you’re dry, you would stick around to try and find a solution that does not involve disappearing into thin air when the monthly alimony payments come around.

That said, modern wives – even those in extremely happy, stable marriages, with exemplary sole provider-husbands – should never take their financial situations for granted.

The goal for a mother concerned about her children’s welfare is to make sure she is able to support them on her own, at any given moment. All kinds of unpredictable things can happen, divorce being only one of them.

Also, other general measures should be considered, to complement the ones proposed for the Women’s Charter: for example, the ability to request more parental or childcare leave for a divorced parent who has sole custody of the children, or more help and some priority for divorced mothers who want to go back to school to increase their earning power.

Then again, perhaps I’m being idealistic. I can’t help it. The thought of a little girl who doesn’t know where to send Father’s Day cards to, for, possibly, the rest of her life, fills me with complex emotions.

When it comes to that kind of deprivation, no amount of court-ordered monies in the world can make a difference.

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