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Chinese single mothers demand reform after being denied benefits.



Chinese single mothers demand reform after being denied benefits.
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Chinese single mothers demand reform after being denied benefits.

Chinese single mothers demand reform after being denied benefits.



Sarah Gao had a lot on her plate. She was regularly traveling around China on business trips as the director of a 500 million yuan ($76.8 million) investment fund. Then she found out she was expecting a child.

Her pregnancy with her boyfriend at the time was unplanned. Gao, who was 40 at the time, wanted to hold the baby because she didn’t think she had any other choice. She had no idea that her decision would lead to a nearly four-year court dispute over her maternity benefits.

Her long-running legal battle highlights the challenges that Chinese women face while raising a child outside of marriage. Since their status is in a legal grey area, the vast majority are unable to receive public services such as paid maternity leave and prenatal test coverage. Fines can be imposed on others.

Gao, along with a group of other single mothers, wants to change that. They were part of a small community that petitioned the National People’s Congress’s Legal Affairs Committee at its recently concluded annual meeting, which was coordinated by Advocates for Diverse Family Network. They don’t expect immediate action, but they hope that their concerns will be addressed in the upcoming legislative agenda.

China’s population is increasingly ageing, and the government is eager to encourage more births. In 2015, the government relaxed restrictive family planning regulations, allowing each family to have two children. However, when it comes to single parents, the rules have not changed as easily.

While there are no official figures on the number of single-parent households in China, a survey conducted by the National Health Commission in 2014 projected that nearly 20 million single mothers will exist by 2020. Many of them are the result of divorce, which has nearly doubled in the country from 2009 to 2018, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Gao gave birth to her daughter in November 2016 after a tough pregnancy. She returned to work following a seven-month maternity and sick leave. Her firm, KunYuan Asset Management, paid her the bare minimum during her sick leave: approximately 1,000 yuan ($153) per month, a substantial reduction from her normal monthly salary of 30,000 yuan ($4,606). During her maternity leave, the company did not pay her.

Gao lobbied the organization for a full wage and maternity leave benefits, with a portion of the money coming from the mandatory social insurance contributions.

Employees in Beijing, where Gao lives, can only apply for certain public benefits through their employer. Gao’s business, on the other hand, declined to apply for her, claiming that her materials were incomplete because she didn’t have a marriage license.

The company asked her to resign after she forced the issue. Gao initially declined to resign, but she was ultimately fired. The business, on the other hand, declined to send her a formal letter acknowledging her departure, making it difficult for her to find new employment.

Email requests for comment were not returned, and phone calls to the company’s Beijing headquarters went unanswered.

In addition to her maternity leave payout, Gao is suing the organization for 1 million yuan ($153,645) in back pay. Since July 2017, she has lost twice in court and is appealing for the third time.

“Gao’s unmarried status while giving birth is not in line with national policy,” the court said each time, “and thus lacked the legal justification for her to earn a salary during maternity leave.”

Unmarried women are not specifically prohibited from having children in China’s family planning policy, but it does state that “the state encourages a husband and wife to have two children.”

This has been interpreted locally to mean that only a married couple is permitted to have children. When attempting to get benefits like prenatal visit reimbursement and salary during maternity leave, this becomes a problem.

According to Dong Xiaoying, founder of Advocates for Diverse Family Network, several local governments need a marriage permit during this process.

There have been some modifications. Governments in Guangdong province and Shanghai have updated legislation to eliminate the requirement for a woman to provide proof of marriage before obtaining benefits.

Shanghai secretly introduced a new regulation in January that eliminated the requirement for a marriage permit in order to qualify for benefits, assisting women like Zou Xiaoqi, a single mother turned activist in Shanghai. In 2017, Zou filed a lawsuit against a Shanghai government department to recover her maternity leave pay and public insurance benefits. Zou received her benefits earlier this month after years of media interviews, court hearings, and lobbying city officials.

The laws must alter, according to Zou, because the cultural stigma still exists. She only recently discovered that her son’s playmate’s mother was also a single mother. They’d been dating for five months when the woman revealed that information.

“Its direct effect is that it puts some single moms who are already in challenging situations in even more difficult situations,” Zou said. “An indirect effect is that some people are afraid to speak up, while others are afraid to face society and would be subjected to a great deal of repression. People who don’t want to marry end up marrying and ending up in an unhappy relationship.”

Single mothers and activists are hoping that a national reform would strengthen the situation for single mothers in other parts of the world, such as Gao. In February, a delegate from Guangdong to the National People’s Congress said that the family planning law would need to be clarified to meet the needs of single mothers, recognizing their legal predicament.

“I just want to know if, under national legislation, I have the right to give birth as a single parent, as an unmarried woman?” Gao remarked.

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