Working single mothers are mostly on their own. There is hardly any place they can go to for help or advice. They only have the law to help them nail their spouses for defaulting on child maintenance. Even that is tilted towards their disadvantage.
“At the end of the day, it boils down to the mercy and goodwill of the husbands,” Minister in Chief Minister’s Office, Datin Fatimah Abdullah said.
According to her, errant husbands could be jailed for refusing to pay child support but that would mean they had to be taken to court which, she admitted, could be cumbersome and a financial burden to the women.
“These are working mothers who are juggling career and parenthood. Their responsibilities quadruple when the men walked out.”
Fatimah explained with just one income and a brood to feed, money and time were scarce commodities that could not be spared.
She said the interim period of separation (before divorce is finalised) should also be accounted for because by then, the errant husband had already ceased to provide for the kids.
She revealed the Ministry of Women’s Development would be looking into the matter.
The Minister does not condone the refusal of husbands to pay child support just because their former wives are earning a decent wage.
“Shame on them. What kind of message are they sending to their children — their own flesh and blood? Just because the wife is earning a decent pay and the children are having educational loans, they take the opportunity to shirk their responsibility of paying child support,” she said.
Many such husbands, she pointed out, even cited having children from their present marriage to look after, hoping the law would be lenient by waiving the payment.
“A father is for life and divorce doesn’t mean a father ceases to be father to his children from a previous marriage.”
No doubt, there is a law that protects divorcees and punishes errant spouses but how effective is it?
According to lawyer Violet Yong, the law is to the woman’s disadvantage.
“Only when RM30,000 in defaulted payments is reached will the law declare an errant spouse bankrupt. If the child support payment is small, say, RM100 per month, it means the mother will have to go through 30 years of financial hardships before justice can be done,” she explained.
Yong said the law allows women to take their errant spouses to court if the latter failed to pay child support but it was not foolproof because there are ways and means to get around the law.
“The husbands could promise to oblige during legal proceedings but later, dishonor their promises. It would be a financial burden and mental torture to the women, given that they were already in the red apart from having to frequent the courts.”
She added that the man could be jailed if the court found him guilty of contempt.
Maintaining the previous lifestyle of the family (in this case, the one the children are accustomed to) remains a priority under the law.
The amount of child support, determined by the court in a contested divorce, will reflect that.
In a mutually consented divorce, the amount is agreed on by the parties involved through their lawyers.
But mostly, the divorced women are on their own. Earning a decent wage does not qualify them for welfare and the law that supposedly protects them is usually to their disadvantage. So far, there are no avenues these women could turn to for help.
Yong and Sarawak’s Women to Women president Margaret Bedus favour setting up a family tribunal to address the problem. They believe such a body will provide an avenue of assistance for divorced women and act as a support group.
“If we could have a trade tribunal, we can also have a family tribunal where single mothers could come and seek assistance. Such an organisation must be empowered to execute the court order on payment of maintenance, and to have access to court on behalf of the women,” Yong said.
Margaret went further by saying maintenance should be reviewed periodically to keep up with the changing economy and the ages of the children.
She explained older kids needed more than toddlers, adding that previously RM600 was enough for two kids but not now.
Well aware that ex-spouses tended to default on payments, Margaret suggested automatic pay deduction could serve as a deterrent, saying the money could be remitted to the wife’s account.
The husband’s financial state is an important criterion when it comes to determining the amount of child support.
However, it should not be the cause for defaulted payment or non-contribution.
“It’s the duty and responsibilities of fathers to provide. Regardless of how small their salary is, they should contribute. The children are theirs after all,” Margaret said.