For a few glorious weeks, Zou Xiaoqi, a single mother from 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 only granting maternity benefits to married women. She had little success, losing a lawsuit and two appeals. Then, earlier this year, the city suddenly dropped its marriage obligation. In March, the jubilant Zou received a benefit check in her bank account.
She had barely started celebrating when the government reinstated politics a few weeks later. Unmarried women were again not eligible for government payments for medical care and paid vacation.
“I always knew there was that possibility,” said Ms. Zou, 45. “If they make me return the money, I guess I’ll return it.”
The Shanghai authorities’ about-face reflects a broader consideration in China of long-standing attitudes towards family and gender.
Chinese law does not explicitly prohibit single women from giving birth. But official family planning policies only mention married couples, and local authorities have a long history of providing benefits based on these provisions. Only the province of Guangdong, bordering Hong Kong, allows single women to take out maternity insurance. In many places, women are still subject to fines or other penalties for giving birth out of wedlock.
But as China’s birth rate has fallen in recent years and a new generation of women embrace feminist ideals, these traditional values are under increasing pressure. Today, a small but determined group of women are demanding guaranteed maternity benefits, regardless of their marital status – and, more broadly, recognition of their right to make their own reproductive decisions.
Yet the about-face in Shanghai clearly shows the challenges for feminists in China, where women face deep-rooted discrimination and a government wary of activism.
It also demonstrates the reluctance of the authorities to relinquish decades of control over family planning, even in the face of demographic pressures. The ruling Communist Party said on Monday it would end its two-child policy, allowing couples to have three children, in hopes of lowering the birth rate. But single mothers remain unrecognized.
“There has never been a change in policy,” said an employee of the Shanghai Maternity Insurance Hotline, 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 if she didn’t need the money.
“It’s about the right to choose,” she said. Currently, when a single 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 rejected marriage, childbirth, or both. Only 8.1 million couples married in 2020, according to government statistics, the lowest number since 2003.
The rejection of marriage has been accompanied by increased recognition of single mothers. There are no official statistics on single mothers, but a 2018 report by the state-backed China Women’s Federation estimated that there are at least 19.4 million single mothers in 2020. The figure included widowed and divorced women.
When Zhang A Lan, a 30-year-old filmmaker from central Hebei Province, was growing up, single mothers were seen as filthy and sinful, she said. But by the time she decided two years ago to give birth without getting married, it was common to see people on social media questioning those old stereotypes.
“Marriage is obviously 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 still worry about the financial burden and social stigma facing single mothers, said Dong Xiaoying, a lawyer from Guangzhou who works to promote the rights of single mothers and same-sex couples. Lesbians are also often denied maternity rights because China does not recognize same-sex unions.
Ms. Dong, who herself wishes to have a child out of wedlock, said her parents found the decision incomprehensible.
“It’s like coming out of the closet,” Ms. Dong, 32, said. “There is still a lot of pressure.”
The biggest obstacles, however, are official.
Through certain measures, the authorities have started to recognize the reproductive rights of single women. A representative of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislative body, has for years submitted proposals to improve the rights of single women. While authorities have shut down other feminist groups, those who support single mothers have largely spiraled out of control.
The lighter touch of the authorities may be, at least in part, because women’s goals are articulated with national priorities.
China’s birth rate has fallen in recent years, after decades of one-child policy drastically reduced the number of women of childbearing age. Recognizing the threat to economic growth, the government began to urge women to have more children; On Monday, he announced he would allow couples to have three children. The government’s latest five-year plan, released last year, promised more “inclusive” birth policies, raising hopes for recognition of single mothers.
One state-owned outlet was explicit in a recent headline about the initial policy easing in Shanghai: “More and more Chinese cities are offering maternity insurance to single mothers in times of demographic crisis.
But the apparent support doesn’t go further, Ms. Dong said. Far from promoting the empowerment of women, the authorities have recently sought to push women out of the labor market and reintegrate them into traditional gender roles, the opposite of what would make single motherhood possible. “From a governance perspective, they don’t really want to fully open up,” 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 egg freezing to single women, citing ethical and health concerns.
The overt rejection of gender norms can always provoke retaliation. Last month, Douban, a social media site, shut down several popular forums where women discussed their desire not to marry or to have children. The site’s moderators accused the groups of “extremism,” according to the group’s administrators.
The Shanghai about-face was the clearest example of the authorities’ mixed message on the reproductive rights of single women.
When the city appeared to extend maternity benefits earlier this year, officials never explicitly mentioned single women. Their announcement only stated that a “family planning exam,” which required a marriage certificate, would no longer be performed.
But in April, women again found themselves asking for their marriage certificates when applying online.
“Local administrators don’t want to 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 that window.”
Many women hope that pressure from an increasingly loud public will make such regulations untenable.
Teresa Xu, 32, saw the change with her own eyes in 2019, when she filed a lawsuit against China’s ban on freezing eggs for single women. At 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.
Even so, his case is still pending and authorities have not given him an update for over a year. Ms. Xu said she was confident for the long haul.
“There is no way to predict what they will do in the next two or three years,” she said. “But I believe that there are some things that there is no way to deny, regarding the development and the desires of the society. There is no way to reverse this trend.
Joy Dong contributed research.