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regular-article-logo Thursday, 28 September 2023

China Diary: The modern family

A Shenzhen woman has just sued the government after being denied maternity benefits because she’s an unmarried mother

Neha Sahay Published 04.03.22, 01:47 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. Shutterstock

Seventy-five years after Mao Zedong said “Women hold up half the sky,” the women of the country he liberated are fighting to claim that space.

A Shenzhen woman has just sued the government after being denied maternity benefits because she’s an unmarried mother. Maternity “insurance” in China covers the loss of income during maternity leave, as well as medical expenses incurred at childbirth. But these are given only to those who come under the family planning policy, for which you need a marriage certificate, a family planning ‘permit’ (which allows you to have children) and of course, a husband.

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The amount of maternity insurance this woman stands to lose is huge — 70,000 yuan — but that hasn’t changed her decision not to marry her steady boyfriend. She’s not the first to push for this revolutionary change; a woman from Shanghai had done so in 2017. Her fight was tougher — she found herself pregnant after she broke up with her boyfriend. She was then 40. Sensing this to be her last chance to be a mother, she decided to go ahead with the pregnancy. After the courts refused to entertain her appeal, she wrote to the National People’s Congress, the highest legislative body, asking that the rules be changed. Out of the blue last year, the Shanghai government decided that proof of marriage would no longer be necessary to avail of maternity insurance, and she got her money.

Technically, these women point out, they are in the right: childbirth by unmarried women is not illegal, both married and unmarried women pay the same amount to apply for maternity insurance, and nowhere does the law state that a marriage certificate is a prerequisite to claim maternity benefits.

Tough fight

Additionally, meeting their demands would boost China’s current obsession with increasing its population which has been dwindling after decades of the ruthless one-child policy. This was the argument made by an unmarried Beijing woman who sued a public hospital in the capital after not being allowed to freeze her eggs. Get married, the doctor there told her; instead, she sued, pointing out that no law laid down marriage as a prerequisite for having one’s eggs frozen. She was 30 then; it took almost three years for her second hearing to be listed (albeit, the lockdown contributed to the delay). Significantly, unmarried men are allowed to have their sperm frozen.

The publicity that these pioneers have received has resulted in groups of single mothers being formed across the country. In Guangzhou, “Advocates for Diverse Family Network” has emerged to campaign for laws to protect the rights of
single mothers, including lesbians.

The fight is tough; prejudice against single mothers isn’t reflected only in social attitudes — they are routinely denied jobs — but also finds place in government regulations. In some provinces, unwed mothers have to pay a fine; in others, the child cannot get a ‘hukou’, the ID card that ensures access to health and educational benefits. One unmarried mother found that her child’s birth certificate came with conditions: a ban on the child travelling abroad till the age of 18; and, if the child wanted a government job, the father would have to be traced.

Single women wanting to get maternity benefits can enter into a marriage of convenience; but as the 40-year-old Shanghai pioneer said: “It’s unreasonable to use marriage as a condition only to get the insurance.” Principles apart, there is also the fear that the ‘husband’ may later claim custody of the child.

Yet, the situation is far better today — at least a child that violates family planning policy is no longer killed off by family planning officials.

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