Sisters in Islam welcomes the statement by the Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Senator Heng Seai Ki, that the Ministry is studying the setting up of an agency to regulate support payments for children of divorced parents. We are however concerned that the agency will reportedly only have jurisdiction over non-Muslim Malaysians.
We reiterate our opposition to the rising trend in Malaysia to treat Muslims and citizens of other faiths differently, separately and unequally.
All children have the right to be financially supported and cared for by their parents. Unfortunately, Sisters in Islam’s work with women through our Telenisa helpline showed that the non-payment of maintenance or child support remains a significant problem. Out of the nearly 800 cases received through the helpline in 2007, 35 percent were about maintenance, forming the majority of the cases.
We appreciate the efforts by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) and the Malaysian Syariah Judicial Department (JKSM) to support Muslim women in Kuala Lumpur whose ex-husbands failed to pay maintenance, by providing loans. However, the impact of these measures is limited. This is partly due to separate state jurisdictions and the limitations inherent in the Bantuan Sokongan Keluarga (BSK) unit under JKSM. Crucially, it is also because these measures fail to both bring errant fathers into account, and enable parents and children to seek redress. Malaysia needs to move away from the welfare approach of giving handouts to a rights-based approach that enables the fulfillment of basic human rights for all.
A national Child Support Agency would provide support to divorced parents by administering the assessment and collection of child support payment to the parent who has custody of the children. Similar schemes have proven to work in several countries. In Australia, before the 1988 Child Support Scheme, less than 25 percent of parents with court orders for child support paid or received child support. Since the establishment of the Australian Child Support Agency under the Scheme, by 2008 over 96 per cent of all child support liabilities since 1988 have either been collected or discharged.
We would like to point out that countries such as Australia have placed such an agency under the administrative system of the state rather than the judicial arm, reinforcing the principle that children’s right to child support is not up for dispute by parents. The upbringing and development of children and a standard of living adequate for their development is a fundamental human right for children.
Furthermore, the setting up of two separate regulatory mechanisms for the same function is resource-extensive and opens the door for differing standards of justice, contingent upon one’s religion. We know that in reality, Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians do not live in separate ghettoes. In cases where one parent converts into Islam, will the other parent be forced to deal with two agencies instead of one?
Sisters in Islam calls for the setting up of a National Child Support Agency for all Malaysians. The functions of a Child Support Agency are to trace the parents’ financial resources, to calculate the reasonable amount based on the child’s needs and the parents’ means, and to enforce the payments of child support or maintenance. We maintain that given the administrative nature of such an agency, there is no issue with regards to the respective applicability of the civil and Syariah family laws. It is unconscionable for a significant majority of children in this country to be deprived of their right to be supported by their parents under a child support system scheme.
Dr Hamidah Marican
Sisters in Islam