For a few glorious weeks, Zou Xiaoqi, a single mother in Shanghai, felt accepted by her government.
After giving birth in 2017, Ms Zou, a financial worker, went to court to challenge Shanghai’s policy of giving maternity leave only to married women. She had little success and lost one lawsuit and two appeals. Then, earlier in the year, the city suddenly dropped its marriage claim. In March, a jubilant Mrs Zou received a benefit check in her bank account.
She had barely begun to celebrate when the government reintroduced the policy only a few weeks later. Unmarried women were once again not eligible to receive public payments for medical treatment and paid leave.
“I always knew there was this possibility,” said Zou, 45. “If they make me give the money back, I guess I’m giving it back.”
Flip-flops from the Shanghai authorities reflect a broader bill in China on long-standing attitudes toward family and gender.
Chinese law does not explicitly prohibit single women from giving birth. However, official family planning policies only mention married couples, and local officials have long provided benefits based on these provisions. Only Guangdong Province, which borders Hong Kong, allows unmarried women to apply for maternity insurance. In many places, women are subject to fines or other sanctions for giving birth out of wedlock.
But as China’s birth rate has declined in recent years and a new generation of women is embracing feminist ideals, these traditional values have come under increasing pressure. Now, a small but determined group of women is calling for guaranteed maternity benefits, regardless of marital status – and more broadly, for recognition of their right to make their own reproductive decisions.
Yet the face in Shanghai poses clear challenges for feminists in China, where women face deep-rooted discrimination and a government suspicious of activism.
It also shows the reluctance of the authorities to relinquish decades of control over family planning, even in the face of demographic pressures. The ruling Communist Party announced on Monday that it would end its policy of having two children, giving couples the opportunity to have three children, in hopes of raising a declining birth rate. But single mothers remain unknown.
“There has never been a policy change,” said a worker at Shanghai’s maternity insurance hotline when contacted. Telephone. “Single mothers have never met the requirements. ”
Mrs Zou, who found out she was pregnant after breaking up with her boyfriend, said she would continue to fight for recognition even if she did not need the money.
“This is about the right to choose,” she said. At the moment, when 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 Chinese women have rejected marriage, childbirth, or both. Only 8.1 million couples were married in 2020, according to government statistics, the lowest number since 2003.
With the rejection of marriage, there has been an increased recognition of single mothers. There are no official statistics on single mothers, but a 2018 report from the state-sponsored All-China Women’s Federation estimated that there would be at least 19.4 million single mothers by 2020. The figure included widowed and divorced women.
When Zhang A Lan, a 30-year-old filmmaker in central Hebei province, grew up, unmarried mothers were considered bad and sinful, she said. But when she decided to give birth two years ago without getting married, it was common to see people on social media challenging the old stereotypes.
“Marriage, of course, is not a prerequisite for childbirth,” said Ms Zhang, who gave birth to a boy last year.
Yet many women described a persistent gap between attitudes online and in reality.
Many Chinese are still concerned about the economic burden and social stigma that single mothers face, said Dong Xiaoying, a lawyer in Guangzhou who works to promote the rights of single mothers and gay couples. Lesbians are also often denied maternity rights as China does not recognize same-sex unions.
Ms Dong, who herself wants to have a child out of wedlock, said her parents find that decision incomprehensible.
“It’s a bit like getting out of the closet,” said Mrs. Dong, 32. “There’s still a lot of pressure.”
The biggest obstacles, however, are official.
By some measures, the authorities have begun to recognize the reproductive rights of single women. A representative of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, has for years put forward proposals to improve the rights of unmarried women. While the authorities have closed other feminist groups, those who support unmarried mothers have largely avoided control.
The easier contact of the authorities may be at least partly because women’s goals coincide with national priorities.
China’s birth rate has fallen in recent years after decades of one-child policies sharply reduced the number of women of childbearing age. The government recognizes the threat to economic growth and has begun to encourage women to have more children; Monday, it announced it would allow couples to have three children. The government’s latest five-year plan, released last year, promised more “including“Birth policies that created hope for the recognition of unmarried mothers.
A state-owned outlet was explicit in a recent headline about the initial detachment of policy in Shanghai: “Several Chinese cities offer maternity insurance to unmarried mothers in the midst of a demographic crisis.”
But the apparent support only goes so far, Ms Dong said. Far from promoting women’s empowerment, authorities have recently sought to push women out of the workforce and back into traditional gender roles – the opposite of what would enable single motherhood. “From a management perspective, they actually do not want to open up completely,” she said.
The National Health Commission stressed this year that family planning is the responsibility of “husbands and wives together.” In January, the Commission rejected a proposal to open freezing for single women, citing ethical and health problems.
Excessive rejection of gender norms can still provoke retaliation. Last month Douban, a social media site, close more popular forums where women discussed their desire not to marry or have children. Website moderators accused the groups of “extremism”, according to group administrators.
Shanghai’s face was the clearest example of the authorities’ mixed announcements on reproductive rights for unmarried women.
As the city appeared to expand maternity services earlier in the year, officials never explicitly mentioned unmarried women. Their announcement only said that a “family planning notification” requiring a marriage certificate would no longer be completed.
But in April, women were again asked for their marriage certificates when applying online.
“The local administrators will not take responsibility,” Ms Dong said. “No higher national authority has said that these family planning rules can be relaxed, so they dare not be the ones to open this window.”
Many women hope that pressure from an increasingly loud public will make such rules untenable.
Teresa Xu, 32, then switched firsthand in 2019 when she filed a lawsuit challenging China’s ban on egg freezing for single women. First, the judge treated her like a “naive little girl,” she said. But as her case gained support on social media, officials became more respectful.
Still, her case is still pending and officials have not given her an update in over a year. Ms. Xu said she was confident in the long run.
“There is no way to predict what they will do in the next two or three years,” she said. “But I think there are some things that there is no way to deny when it comes to the development and desires of society. There is no way to reverse this trend. ”
Joy Dong contributed research.