Sarah Gao had a busy job. As the head of a 500 million yuan (US$77 million) investment fund, she was constantly flying across China on business trips. Then she found out that she was pregnant from her then-boyfriend.
Her pregnancy was unplanned, but Gao, at the time 40 years old, thought that she would not have any more chances and decided to keep the baby.
What she did not realize was how the decision would lead to a nearly four-year legal battle for her maternity benefits.
Her protracted fight highlights the consequences that Chinese women face when they raise a child outside of a marriage. The vast majority are unable to access public benefits, ranging from paid maternity leave to prenatal exam coverage, because their status is in a legal gray zone. Some might even face fines.
Gao and some other single mothers want to change this. They are part of a small group that petitioned the Chinese National People’s Congress Constitution and Law Committee at its annual meeting earlier this month.
They do not expect immediate action, but hope that their needs would be reflected in China’s legislative agenda in the future.
The country’s population is rapidly aging, and the Chinese government is eager to promote higher birthrates, relaxing restrictive family planning laws in 2015 so that each family can have two children.
However, the laws have not changed as quickly with regards to single parents.
There are no official statistics on the number of single-parent households in the country, but a Chinese National Health Commission survey in 2014 estimated that there would be nearly 20 million single mothers by last year.
Many of them come from divorce, with divorce rates in the country nearly doubling from 2009 to 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs has said.
Following a difficult pregnancy, Gao gave birth to her daughter in November 2016. She went back to work after seven months of sick leave and maternity leave.
Throughout her sick leave, her company, KunYuan Asset Management (坤元資產管理), paid her the bare minimum: about 1,000 yuan a month, a huge drop from her usual monthly salary of 30,000 yuan. The company did not pay her during maternity leave.
Gao pressed the company for full salary and maternity leave benefits, part of which would come from the social insurance to which companies contribute by law.
In Beijing, where Gao lives, an employee can apply for those public benefits only through their company.
However, KunYuan refused to apply for Gao, saying that her materials were incomplete because she lacked a marriage license.
When she forced the issue, the company asked her to resign. Gao at first refused to quit, but eventually she was fired.
However, the company refused to issue her a formal letter that would acknowledge her departure, making it difficult for her to find a new job.
KunYuan did not respond to requests for comment via e-mail, and telephone calls to the head office in Beijing went unanswered.
Gao is suing the company for 1 million yuan in back pay in addition to her maternity leave pay. She has since July 2017 lost twice in court and is appealing for a third time.
Each time, the court said that “Gao’s unmarried status while giving birth is not in line with national policy, and therefore lacked the legal basis for her to receive a salary during maternity leave.”
China’s family planning policy does not explicitly forbid unmarried women to have children, but says that “the state encourages a husband and wife to have two children.”
At the local level, this has been interpreted to mean that only a married couple can have children.
This becomes an obstacle when trying to access benefits, such as reimbursement for prenatal visits and salary during pregnancy leave.
Many local governments require a marriage permit during this process, said Dong Xiaoying, founder of the Advocates for Diverse Family Network, which helped Gao’s group file the petition with the legislative committee.
There have been some changes. In Guangdong Province and Shanghai, governments have changed regulations so that a woman does not have to provide proof of marriage before getting benefits.
In January, Shanghai quietly implemented a new regulation that removed the need for a marriage permit to apply for benefits, helping women like Zou Xiaoqi, a single mother turned rights advocate.
Zou in 2017 sued a Shanghai government agency to get maternity leave salary and public insurance benefits. After years of media interviews, court appearances and lobbying city officials, Zou earlier this month received her benefits.
The laws must change, as the cultural stigma is still very intense, Zou said.
Only recently did she find out that the mother of her son’s playmate was also a single mother. They had known each other for five months before the woman revealed that detail.
“Its direct impact is that there are some single moms already facing great difficulties who fall into more difficult positions,” Zou said. “The indirect impact is that some people are afraid to speak up, and some are afraid to face society and will face a lot of suppression. People who don’t want to marry end up getting married and enter into an unhappy marriage.”
Single mothers and rights advocates are hoping that a change on the national level can smooth out the situation for single mothers in the rest of the country, like Gao.
A Guangdong delegate to the national legislature last month said that the family planning laws might need some clarifications to address the needs of single mothers, acknowledging their legal quandary.
“I just want to know in the national policy, as a single parent, as an unmarried woman, do I have the right to give birth?” Gao said.
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