Shanghai single mother gets maternity insurance after three-year legal battle with China’s government

Phoebe Zhang
·3-min read

A single mother in Shanghai has finally received employer-provided maternity insurance after a three-year legal battle.

This makes Shanghai the second region in China after Guangdong province to give equal treatment to children born to unmarried single parents.

Chris Zou, the 45-year-old mother, told the Post she had already received her payment and felt “happy and grateful” to those who had supported her during her fight for recognition.

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Chris Zou, a single mother, and her now four-year-old son Xinxin, in a boat on a lake in Shanghai, China. Photo: Chris Zou
Chris Zou, a single mother, and her now four-year-old son Xinxin, in a boat on a lake in Shanghai, China. Photo: Chris Zou

Zou’s case was the first lawsuit of its kind in China’s legal system.

Married couples in China are entitled to insurance and to subsidies through a programme that provides financial relief to women after having children.

Yet unmarried mothers often find themselves in a Catch-22 situation; they are entitled to the insurance by law, but local governments often require they prove their “childbearing status” which is impossible to prove without a marriage certificate.

Zou’s plight began in 2016 when she separated from her son’s father and later found out she was pregnant. In 2017 she applied for maternity insurance but was refused because she was not married.

Zou and her son Xinxin. Photo: Chris Zou
Zou and her son Xinxin. Photo: Chris Zou

When she took her case to the first district government office and had her complaint rejected she took legal action against the Shanghai social security service centre, which is responsible for distributing the maternity funds.

For three years court rulings consistently went against her, with her final appeal denied in October last year.

After exhausting her legal options, she began lobbying her local Shanghai government office and writing letters to the National People’s Congress, China’s highest legislative body, in a bid to change the law to specifically include unmarried parents.

“In January this year, with the help of a friend, I found that the Shanghai government no longer required the proof ... so I immediately applied online,” she said.

Her first two applications were denied, but on the third attempt her application was granted.

Four other women in Shanghai have now also successfully applied for the insurance this month.

Activists are optimistic this will pave the way for better treatment of unmarried mothers in China.

Chris Zou’s now four-year-old son Xinxin, looking at the chassis and engine of a car, in Shanghai, China. Photo: Chris Zou
Chris Zou’s now four-year-old son Xinxin, looking at the chassis and engine of a car, in Shanghai, China. Photo: Chris Zou

Advocates for a Diverse Family Network, a Guangzhou-based non-profit, said in a WeChat post that they “believe with more individual success cases and continued advocacy, the policy will gradually loosen”.

China is facing a looming population crisis as it confronts the twin realities of a declining birthrate and an ageing population. In response, the Chinese government has gradually relaxed reproductive restrictions such as its notorious one-child policy.

However, single mothers face significant discrimination in China such as not being able to use assisted reproductive technology or to freeze their eggs. In cases like Zou’s unmarried mothers often find it impossible to receive government aid.

The case is being brought up again by China’s lawmakers ahead of China’s two sessions — the annual parliamentary meetings, which begins today.

Last month, a lawyer from Guangdong proposed that China should specifically state birth out of wedlock is in line with the country’s policies and single mothers should receive equal treatment in terms of insurance and other subsidies.

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