SOON AFTER Zhang Jiajia gave birth to a boy in 2017, she went to her local social-security centre in Shanghai to claim maternity benefits. These would include reimbursements for services such as prenatal check-ups and midwifery, as well as compensation for lost workdays. But Ms Zhang (a pseudonym) was turned away. The centre wanted proof of marriage. As a single mother, she had none.
China’s government wants citizens to have larger families. With just 12m babies born last year, the country’s birth rate was the lowest since 1978, according to recently released data. China’s fertility rate—the average number of children a woman is likely to have during her lifetime—is among the lowest in the world, at 1.3. In May officials allowed couples to have three children, having previously limited most to two (a one-child policy was enforced, often brutally, from 1979 to 2016). Local governments are encouraging procreation with new support that includes longer parental leave and fatter subsidies.
Divorced or widowed mothers can claim these benefits, but those who have never married, including lesbians whose unions are not recognised in China, usually cannot. Worse, some of them face fines. In March Ms Zhang took Shanghai’s medical-insurance bureau to court to demand equal treatment. “This isn’t just about the money,” says the 38-year-old, who works in the city’s financial district. “It’s about the right to give birth.”
China does not explicitly ban extramarital births. Its marriage law guarantees the same rights for children born out of wedlock as those born in it. Yet the family-planning law says that procreation involves “a husband and wife”. Local officials often take that to mean that unwed mothers are in violation of that legislation. In a wealthy city like Shanghai, lost benefits would range from 30,000 yuan ($4,700) to 120,000 yuan. Unmarried mothers sometimes have to pay the same “social maintenance fees” that are extracted from couples who have more children than allowed. The levies can add up to several years of working-class income.
It used to be that the offspring of unmarried mothers were often denied hukou, or proof of a person’s place of origin. This made it hard for them to obtain identity papers, enroll in state schools or receive subsidised health care. In 2016 the government reminded officials that children born outside marriage must be given hukou. That seems to have worked.
But public attitudes to single parenthood are changing more quickly than those of officials. In 2015 an unmarried mother launched an online crowdfunding campaign in the hope of raising 40,000 yuan to cover her social maintenance fee. She raised over 9,000 yuan overnight. In 2016 an NGO supporting LGBT rights, called Rainbow Lawyers, published an online questionnaire about single mothers. Though not a representative sample, more than 2,080 people responded. Nearly nine in ten said unmarried mothers should get the same benefits as married women. Three in four said fines for extramarital births should be abolished.
Last year just 8m couples got married in China. The number has fallen for seven years in a row. Cohabitation and conception out of wedlock are becoming more common as sexual mores change. Even so, extramarital births remain widely stigmatised. Research published last year by Li Wenzhen of Renmin University found that 60% of women who get pregnant while in a non-marital relationship go on to marry their partner and give birth to the child. Abortions are also common.
Ms Zhang worries that her son may also be shunned by society. A state kindergarten refused to admit him because she would not give details of his father, whom she had divorced after he abused her. (Her son was conceived during a brief reunion.) She refused on principle, regarding the information as irrelevant since the father had no right of custody. Ms Zhang sent the boy to a private school instead.
Women are beginning to fight back. In 2017 Zou Xiaoqi (pictured on previous page), who is also from Shanghai, became the first single mother to sue the government for maternity benefits. She lost every case over the course of four years.
But her battle was closely watched. Some single mothers have been emboldened by it to take their employers to court. In parts of the country, firms are responsible for paying employees during maternity leave (a minimum of 98 days on full salary) but can claim the money back from the state. Fearing that the government may not reimburse them, some employers refuse to give such pay when the woman is single. Some unmarried women, once pregnant, are even fired. Female job applicants are still often asked about child-rearing plans, despite a ban on this. Ms Zou and Ms Zhang are part of a support group on WeChat, a messaging app, of over 100 unmarried mothers seeking better treatment.
Earlier this year, many in the group cheered when Shanghai appeared to remove a bureaucratic hurdle to obtaining maternity benefits. Rather than requiring proof of marriage, an app allowed mothers to check a box agreeing to take legal responsibility if they were found to be breaking family-planning policies. Ms Zou was one of at least eight unmarried mothers in the city who did so and duly received the amount that married women would get. But within a few months, other mothers’ applications were being refused again—Ms Zhang’s among them. Officials gave no explanation for the about-turn.
Only in the southern province of Guangdong do single mothers routinely receive benefits. This stems from an overhaul of its family-planning rules in 2016. Progress elsewhere is piecemeal. China bans single women from undergoing procedures such as egg-freezing or in vitro fertilisation to help with reproduction. In August officials in the central province of Hunan said they would consider allowing single women to freeze their eggs. But they insisted that a marriage licence would still be needed to retrieve them.
The shift to a three-child policy has given hope to single mothers that social maintenance fees may be abolished. The central government says this is being considered. The charges are currently imposed mainly on families with four children or more, a rare sort. On November 25th Shanghai published its own rules for implementing the three-child policy. They included incentives to have children and appeared to scrap the fees altogether.
The Communist Party wants to boost births, while preserving traditional values. Chen Yaya of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences speculates that extramarital births could become a bountiful source of babies, if they were less stigmatised. In the OECD, a club mainly of rich countries, the proportion of births out of wedlock rose from 6% in 1960 to 40% in 2016, notes Ms Chen. There are exceptions: only 2% of births in socially conservative Japan are non-marital. It is not clear what Chinese women would choose, if officials were to give them the freedom to do so. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Against the tide”