For a few wonderful weeks, Zou Xiaoqi, a single mother in Shanghai, felt accepted by her government.
After giving birth in 2017, Ms. Zou, a financial clerk, went to court to challenge Shanghai’s policy of granting maternity benefits only to married women. She had little success, losing one lawsuit and two appeals. Then, at the beginning of the year, the city suddenly dropped its marriage obligation. In March, a jubilant Ms. Zou received a performance check on her bank account.
She had barely started partying when the government reintroduced policy just weeks later. Unmarried women were again not entitled to government payments for medical care and paid vacation.
“I always knew there was this possibility,” said Ms. Zou, 45. “If you force me to return the money, I will probably give it back.”
The Shanghai authorities’ flip-flop reflects a broader view in China of longstanding attitudes towards family and gender.
Chinese law does not specifically prohibit single women from giving birth. However, official family planning guidelines only mention married couples, and local officials have long provided services based on these provisions. Only in Guangdong Province, which borders Hong Kong, can unmarried women apply for maternity insurance. In many places women still face fines or other punishments for childbirth out of wedlock.
But as China’s birthrate has plummeted in recent years and a new generation of women embraces feminist ideals, these traditional values have come under increasing pressure. Now a small but determined group of women are demanding guaranteed maternity benefits regardless of marital status – and, more generally, recognition of their right to make their own reproductive choices.
Still, the U-turn in Shanghai highlights the challenges facing feminists in China, where women face deeply ingrained discrimination and a government that is suspicious of activism.
It also shows the authorities’ reluctance to give up decades of control over family planning, even in the face of demographic pressures. The ruling Communist Party announced Monday that it would end its two-child policy, which allows couples to have three children , hoping to reverse a falling birth rate. But single mothers go unrecognized.
“There has never been a change in the policy,” said a member of the maternity insurance hotline in Shanghai when she was reached by phone. “Single mothers never met the requirements. ”
Ms. Zou, who found out she was pregnant after breaking up with her boyfriend, said she would continue to fight for recognition even though she didn’t need the money.
“This is about the right to vote,” she said. Currently, if an unmarried woman becomes pregnant, “You can either get married or have an abortion. Why not give people the right to a third choice? “
As education levels have risen in recent years, more and more Chinese women have refused marriage, childbirth, or both. According to government statistics, only 8.1 million couples got married in 2020, the lowest since 2003.
With the rejection of marriage, the recognition of single mothers has increased. There are no official statistics on single mothers, but a 2018 report by the state-sponsored All-China Women’s Federation estimates there will be at least 19.4 million single mothers in 2020. The number included widowed and divorced women.
When Zhang A Lan, a 30-year-old filmmaker, was growing up in central Hebei Province, unmarried mothers were considered defiled and sinful, she said. But when she decided to give birth without marrying two years ago, it was common for people on social media to question these old stereotypes.
“Marriage is obviously not a prerequisite for childbirth,” said Ms. Zhang, who gave birth to a boy last year.
Yet many women describe a persistent gap between attitudes on the Internet and in reality.
Many Chinese people still worry about the financial burden and social stigma that single mothers face, said Dong Xiaoying, a Guangzhou lawyer who advocates the rights of single mothers and gay couples. Also, lesbians are often denied maternity rights because China does not recognize same-sex partnerships.
Ms. Dong, who wants to have an illegitimate child herself, said her parents found the decision incomprehensible.
“It’s a bit like coming out of the closet,” says Ms. Dong, 32. “The pressure is still great.”
However, the biggest obstacles are official.
The authorities have started to recognize the reproductive rights of single women through some measures. A representative of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, has been making proposals for years to improve the rights of unmarried women. While authorities have shut down other feminist groups, those who support unmarried mothers have largely avoided scrutiny.
The easier attitude of the authorities may be at least partly due to the fact that women’s goals are aligned with national priorities.
China’s birth rate has plummeted in recent years after decades of one-child policies severely reduced the number of women of childbearing age. Recognizing the threat to economic growth, the government has begun pushing women to have more children. On Monday it announced that it would allow couples to have three children. The government’s last five-year plan, published last year, promised an “inclusive” birth policy and raised hopes for recognition of unmarried mothers.
A state-run outlet recently ran a headline about the initial relaxation of policy in Shanghai: “In the midst of the demographic crisis, more and more Chinese cities are offering maternity insurance for unmarried mothers.”
But the obvious support only goes so far, said Ms. Dong. Far from promoting women’s empowerment, the authorities recently tried to push women out of work and back into traditional gender roles – the opposite of what single mothers would allow. “From a governance point of view, they don’t really want to open up completely,” she said.
The National Health Commission emphasized this year that family planning is the responsibility of “husbands and wives together”. In January, citing ethical and health concerns, the commission rejected a proposal to open egg freezing to single women.
Open rejection of gender norms can still result in reprisals. Over the past month, Douban, a social media site, shut down several popular forums where women discussed their desire not to marry or have children. Site moderators accused the groups of “extremism”, according to the group administrators.
Shanghai’s U-turn was the clearest example of the mixed messages from the authorities on the reproductive rights of unmarried women.
When the city apparently expanded maternity benefits earlier this year, officials never specifically mentioned unmarried women. Their announcement merely stated that a “family planning test”, which required a marriage certificate, would no longer be carried out.
In April women were again asked for their marriage certificates when applying online.
“The local administrators don’t want to take responsibility,” said Ms. Dong. “No higher national authority has said these family planning rules can be relaxed, so don’t dare to open that window.”
Many women hope that the pressure of an increasingly louder public will make such regulations untenable.
Teresa Xu, 32, saw this change firsthand in 2019 when she filed a lawsuit against China’s ban on egg freezing for single women. The judge initially treated her like a “naive little girl,” she said. But when her case found support on social media, officials became more respectful.
Even so, her case is still pending, and officials haven’t given her an update in over a year. Ms. Xu said she was confident in the long term.
“There’s no way of predicting what they’re going to do in the next two or three years,” she said. “But I believe that there are some things that cannot be denied when it comes to the development and desires of society. There is no way to reverse this trend. “
Joy Dong contributed to the research.