After more than three decades of interference in citizens’ reproductive choices, it seemed something of a breakthrough in 2015 when the Chinese government decided to allow all couples to have two children.
The polices were further loosened last year when children born in violation of the erstwhile rules were given the registration document that is needed for everything from attending public school to opening a bank account.
While China’s low birth rate has sparked action, for mothers whose children are born out of wedlock, the nightmare of bureaucratic non-recognition persists.
Chinese national law has never properly defined a 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. Moreover, 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. When applying for an official recognition of a birth, both parents must prove they are related to the child in order to obtain a birth certificate. And without a birth certificate, a registration or “hukou” — a requirement for attending public school — is unattainable. Consequently, if a mother does not know who the father is or cannot convince him to submit to a DNA test, she cannot register her child.
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 often branded as 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.
In reality, an increasing number of Chinese women are well educated, have high-paying jobs, and enjoy a high social standing. They are often more financially independent than men of a similar age and hold more liberal attitudes regarding marriage and parenthood.
Their educational and professional achievements also motivate them to challenge traditional concepts of marriage, family, and gender roles. They long for a social and legal system that supports their right to have children on their own terms.
Still, many women never act on their desires to become single mothers. Fear of being labeled “leftover women” push many women into marital arrangements for which they are unprepared. Society also ignores the fact that women remain single 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.
A proper debate needs to happen in China about alternative family and marriage arrangements that have recently gained traction in many Western countries. Chinese society cannot take monogamous relationships as the norm, and supporting a woman’s reproductive rights will put it on the path toward more progressive social attitudes regarding sexuality, gender, and marriage.
The government must clarify the reproductive rights of single women and the legal status of children born to them. It must protect the social welfare of unmarried women, including their individual rights and access to health care. Lastly, it must encourage mass media organizations to present a more progressive image of modern relationships by offering the general public examples of strong, capable, and loving single mothers.
There are signs that change is taking place, albeit slowly. The provincial government in Guangdong recently 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 and much work remains to ensure that Guangdong does not remain the exception, but instead becomes the norm.