Shanghai single mother fights for maternity benefits

Society & Culture

After a prolonged legal battle to claim maternity benefits for her only child, Zhāng Méng 张萌 — a Chinese single mother — appealed to the Shanghai Supreme People’s Court for a retrial in June. Last week, news came (in Chinese) that the highest court in the city had accepted her case. The decision has reignited her hopes of protecting her reproductive rights as an unmarried mom after China’s legal system failed her for more than two years.

Zhāng filed a lawsuit against the Shanghai Social Insurance Management Center, which handles all sorts of social benefits, including pensions and maternity leaves. It has been dubbed the first case in China where a single mother took legal action in order to get maternity benefits, which, in Zhang’s case, amount to around 50,000 yuan ($7,000) as a salary compensation for her five months of maternity leave.

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In 2016, Zhang found herself pregnant after breaking up with her then-boyfriend. She decided to give birth with support from her family, but childbirth outside marriage caused her to face an array of challenges in the years that followed. In 2017, because she was unable to provide her partner’s information and a marriage license, Zhang was denied a family-planning certificate by the local government even though she only had one child. In January 2018, when she applied for maternity benefits from the Shanghai Social Insurance Management Center, she was told that her requests couldn’t be processed due to the lack of an official recognition of her birth.

The rejection was in compliance with Chinese national law, which stipulates that applicants need to present family-planning certificates to claim maternity benefits. However, Zhang argued that society discriminates against unmarried mothers and has been preventing them from getting the certificates, which is unfair and needs to change.

In pursuit of equal rights for single mothers to have babies, Zhang resorted to legal action, but she has faced an uphill battle. Before Shanghai Supreme People’s Court accepted her case, Zhang had lost three lawsuits in the course of two years.

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When talking to the Beijing News, Zhang said that while it remained unclear how much influence the case would have on laws and regulations, she wanted to encourage single mothers like her to fight for their family rights. “Some people say safeguarding our rights is an act of antagonism, but I disagree,” Zhang told the newspaper. “I think I’m helping the legal system improve because I have a belief in its ability to self-correct.”

While China has been facing declining birth rates, which has prompted local governments to issue various policies and incentives to boost fertility, single women and unmarried mothers have long been excluded from the discourse. Worse, they are discriminated against in many ways, such as the denial of access to assisted reproductive technology such as IVF and egg freezing, as well as the unusual difficulty of obtaining a residency permit, also known as a hukou (户口 hùkǒu), for their children.