For China’s Single Mothers, a Road to Recognition Paved With False Starts

The Four Percent


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 benefits to married women only. She had little success, losing a lawsuit and two appeals. Then, earlier this year, the city suddenly dropped its marriage requirement. In March, a jubilant Ms. Zou received a benefits check in her bank account.

She had barely begun celebrating when the government reinstated the policy just weeks later. Unmarried women were once again ineligible to receive government payments for medical care and paid leave.

“I always knew there was this possibility,” Ms. Zou, 45, said. “If they make me give the money back, I guess I’ll give it back.”

The flip-flop by the Shanghai authorities reflects a broader reckoning in China about longstanding attitudes toward family and gender.

“There has never been a policy change,” a worker at Shanghai’s maternity insurance hotline said when reached by phone. “Single mothers have never met the requirements.”

Still, many women described a persistent gap between attitudes online and in reality.

Many Chinese still worry about the financial burden and social stigma 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 outside of wedlock, said her parents find that decision incomprehensible.

“It’s a little like coming out of the closet,” said Ms. Dong, 32. “There’s still a lot of pressure.”

Shanghai’s about-face was the clearest example of the authorities’ mixed messaging on the reproductive rights of unmarried women.

When the city appeared to expand maternity benefits earlier this year, officials never explicitly mentioned unmarried women. Their announcement said only that a “family planning review,” which required a marriage certificate, would no longer be carried out.


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