Single mother in Shanghai finally gets her maternity benefits after nearly four-year legal battle

Society & Culture

As basic as the benefits are, her victory nonetheless has far-reaching implications as it paves the way for more single parents in China to fight for their rights to public benefits.

Zhang Meng
Zhang Meng and her son

Zhāng Méng 张萌, a Chinese single mother, has finally received maternity insurance for her only child due to a recent change in Shanghai’s regulations regarding family rights that now grants the same maternity benefits to single mothers that married couples get.

Zhang has been embroiled in a legal battle to claim her maternity entitlements for nearly four years. 

The benefits give her compensation for missed work income while pregnant, but do not include any post-partum financial support. As basic as those benefits are, Zhang’s victory nonetheless has far-reaching implications as it paves the way for more single parents to fight for their rights to public benefits, from paid maternity leave to prenatal exam coverage.

  • Zhang, who is now 44 years-old, found herself pregnant in 2016 after breaking up with her boyfriend at the time. Fearing that this would be her final shot at becoming a mother, she decided to keep the baby.
  • After giving birth, Zhang applied for maternity benefits at the local social insurance center, but she was told that her request couldn’t be processed because she didn’t have a marriage certificate and family planning permit.
  • In May 2017, Zhang sued the local authorities. The lawsuit was the first case in China where a single mother took legal action in order to get maternity benefits, which, in Zhang’s case, amounted to around 50,000 yuan ($7,632) as a salary compensation for her five months of maternity leave.
  • What followed was a protracted legal battle. Zhang spent the next three years navigating China’s court system, but she lost all of her lawsuits and eventually ran out of legal options in October, when the Chinese prosecutors’ office denied her official complaint.

In a surprising turn of events, Shanghai changed its family benefits rules in December, which made it the second region after Guangdong Province to allow women to claim maternity benefits without providing proof of marriage.

  • After learning the news, Zhang applied for maternity allowance again in February. A month later, she received her payment.
  • Zhang told (in Chinese) the Beijing News that during her fight for recognition, she and other single mothers who faced the same challenge formed a tightly connected community, where they shared information and exchanged encouragement. She also documented her experience on social media, where she was brutally honest with her struggles and gave strangers advice on how to fight for maternity rights as a single parent.

Single parenthood can be challenging anywhere in the world, but the hurdles are especially high for single Chinese mothers.

  • Many provincial authorities previously denied the children of unwed mothers hukou 户口, or household registration documents, which are closely linked to a person’s legal identity and social services like healthcare and education.
  • Some provinces also have the practice of charging a “social support fee” to single mothers on the grounds that they have violated China’s family planning rules.
  • Despite growing calls for China to protect women’s reproductive rights, Chinese single women are still denied access to assisted reproductive technology such as IVF and egg freezing.