Over the last few years, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been told by my female friends that they want kids without the hassle of getting married, or that they don’t need a husband to raise children.
The paradox, however, is that while the country’s low birth rate has sparked active public debate on issues like the two-child policy and surrogacy law, we ignore the basic reproductive rights of single women. Most Chinese women, unfortunately, still feel that they must be married before they have children.
Chinese national law has never properly defined single women’s reproductive rights. The country’s Population and Family Planning Law states that all citizens hold the right to have children, and women’s rights laws stipulate that women are free to decide whether or not to have children “in accordance with the relevant provisions of the state” — in other words, as long as their choice does not conflict with population control policies. Finally, Article 25 of the Marriage Law states that children born outside of marriage have the same rights as those born to married parents and shall not be subjected to harm or discrimination on that basis.
Yet unmarried mothers are discriminated against in other ways. For example, a woman still has to present a marriage certificate when applying for official recognition of a birth. If she fails to provide one, she may be subject to a fine of 3,000 to 6,000 yuan ($435 to $870) — a punishment that effectively casts the child as illegitimate.
In 2002, northeastern China’s Jilin province issued a set of population and family planning regulations clearly stating that “women who have reached the legal marriage age but do not wish to marry may have one child through legal medical channels.” Unfortunately, the new rules were struck down by the then-National Family Planning Commission. A female lawyer, Tang Qing, even published an article opposing the provincial government’s move, claiming that sacrificing the rights and interests of the next generation for the demands of a minority of people in the present did not adhere to the principle of intergenerational equality.
In China, reproductive rights go hand in hand with notions of legitimacy, most of which center on whether or not parents are legally married. Family planning regulations reinforce the stigma attached to women who have children out of wedlock. This explains why surrogacy, with its connotations of emancipating married couples from the pain of infertility, is able to gain much more media traction than single motherhood, which is branded “unethical” and “irresponsible.” This view denies women the right to choose what they do with their own bodies, assumes women are incapable of independent decision-making, and reinforces misogyny in what is already a highly patriarchal society.
The reality, however, is that more and more Chinese women are eager to explore single motherhood. Most of them, but not all, are over 30 years old, well-educated, have high-paying jobs, and enjoy high social prestige. They are often more financially independent than men of a similar age and hold more liberal attitudes toward marriage and parenthood. Their educational and professional achievements may also motivate them to challenge traditional concepts of marriage, family, and gender roles. They long for a social and legal system that truly supports their right to have children if they want to.
At present, many women never act on their desires to become single mothers. Fear of being labeled “leftover women” may push some women into marital arrangements for which they are not yet well-prepared. Society largely ignores the fact that many women who remain single into their 30s and 40s do so out of choice. Instead of settling for being unwilling wives and mothers, a growing number of Chinese women are seeking fulfillment through successful careers or other interests. Given that their quality of life will remain high regardless of whether they marry, what right do we have to condemn their choices?
It is high time that we loosened the shackles on women’s reproductive rights. Doing so will bring all sorts of benefits to Chinese society. First, it will address the country’s low birth rate by allowing children born to single mothers to be fully recognized, from birth, as equal to children born within marriage. This, in turn, will free motherhood from its uncomfortable entanglement with marriage and herald a potential rise in new births.
Second, it will start a proper debate about alternative family and marriage arrangements that have already gained traction in many Western countries, such as same-sex marriage, cohabitation, and the so-called DINK model (“double income, no kids”). Chinese society should no longer take heterosexual, monogamous relationships as the norm, and supporting women’s reproductive rights will put us on the path toward more diverse, progressive social attitudes toward sexuality, gender, and marriage.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, giving reproductive rights to single women will burnish China’s reputation as a country that respects human rights. The family planning policy first enacted in the 1980s allowed the country to effectively control the size of its population, but drew indignation from certain outside observers who declared it a draconian violation of citizens’ rights to decide their individual family size freely and responsibly.
I am a single woman in my 30s. I have a strong desire to have children, but I haven’t yet found someone I want to marry. Why should these two things be mutually exclusive? If the government granted people like me the same rights and protections as married women, I would feel much less anxious about the future and come under less pressure to marry soon.
To start with, the government must clarify the reproductive rights of single women and the legal status of children born to them. Next, we must work to protect the social welfare of unmarried women, including their individual rights and access to health care. Lastly, the government must encourage mass media organizations to present a more nuanced, progressive image of modern relationships, offering the general public more examples of strong, capable, and loving single mothers.
There are signs that change is taking place, albeit slowly. Last year, the provincial government in Guangdong, southern China, abolished the practice of charging a social support fee to mothers who failed to present a marriage certificate when registering births. Yet a nationwide flurry of progressive legislation is still far off. Women must work to ensure that Guangdong does not remain the exception, but instead becomes the norm.
Translator: Xia Ran; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Bingyou/VCG)