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Knowing single mothers in China — a concealed group which is lack of attention. What is their life like and what kind of support do they need？
Would women make an effort to keep their children after they divorced their partners? Many have expressed their desire to keep their children after divorce. According to a survey, over 65.72% of children live with their mothers after their parents divorce in China. Another government-affiliated research also showed that there were over 19 million unmarried, divorced, or widowed single mothers in China in 2019 (2019). There is still a lack of data on the number of Chinese single mothers in other years. Meanwhile, single mothers draw considerable attention from the general public with the rise of social media platforms. Many social media platforms like Weibo, Zhihu, Xiaohongshu, and TikTok can be social helpers in a single mother’s life. On the other hand, there are still many people who hold stereotypes about single mothers and their children. It shows that public attention and discussion about single mothers are increasing, however, whether there are sufficient support services from the public and the government remains a serious problem. In recent years, little effort from the government is directed toward making changes in laws and providing financial, social, and legal support and health services for assisting single mothers in China. Currently, there is still a detrimental lack of official data on this group, therefore, much more needs to be done in terms of documenting, researching, and supporting single mothers in China.
In China, there are mainly three groups of single mothers: divorced, unmarried, or chosen-to-be mothers. However, they do not have access to rights enjoyed by legally registered families because most of them cannot provide the marriage certificate, which is needed for birth permits and household registration for babies, maternity insurance reimbursement, marriage, maternity leave in a company, and many other essential social support in China.
As for these single mothers, they usually cannot access health care services before, during, and after pregnancy freely, including access to prenatal check-ups and midwifery. Without employment security, they cannot apply for compensation for lost workdays. As for their children, many of them do not even have legal status, which means they are usually not accepted by public schools and lose many education opportunities.
It remains a highly relevant yet less examined topic because most single mothers in China are not granted the same benefits as legally married women, which means they face childcare and employment challenges without any governmental help. Therefore, this paper provides an overview of available support to identify areas where more government and social assistance can be provided and improved for single mothers in China. I argue that even though the struggles of single mothers in China are gradually becoming more known, their lives are actually not that easy, and different types of single mothers still encounter countless problems. All of them need to receive varying degrees of community service from diverse parts of their lives.
I. Single Mothers in China: Who Are They and What Challenges Do They Face?
Historically, China has been a country with severe gender inequality, as men were always more important than women. Since then, the status of women is improving in the society of China. China was one of the first countries in the world to demand women's liberation and strive for gender equality, appearing on the political agenda. In recent decades, Chinese women have undoubtedly gained more economic independence, higher education, and professional qualifications. (Agne, 2023). Since most women today have to take on significant responsibilities for their families, they need to handle multiple tasks at the same time, taking care of children and doing housework in addition to their full-time jobs.
However, the social status of single mothers is a bit different from those who have a socially acceptable family structure. The three main types of single mothers in China: divorced, unmarried, and by choice, each with different social status that bring them specific problems.
Divorced single mothers in China may receive economic compensation and financial relief from their partners according to China’s current marriage laws, yet such “vague, defective, and obsolete laws” do not guarantee that this group of single mothers receive adequate financial support (Lee, 2019). This is further demonstrated by Li’s study on poverty faced by single mothers in China (2020). Due to deep-rooted stigma, it is generally hard for them to get remarried, posing further challenges to the social relationships and interpersonal support they can access (Li, 2020). Therefore, divorced single mothers mainly face economic challenges due to lack of spousal support, and unwelcoming stereotypes due to traditional family values upheld by many Chinese.
For unmarried single mothers, this situation usually happens due to the lack of sex education and accidental pregnancies. Compared to high-income countries, China still has limited access to sexual and reproductive health education and counseling services, which means that many young women even do not know where they can get help with unwanted pregnancies. A study conducted in Shanghai on unmarried sexually active young people (15-24 years old) showed that 13.8% of young women had unintended pregnancies, and according to reports, 99.0% of such pregnancies ended in abortion (Guoet et. al, 2019). As for accidents, this always happens between unmarried partners. Due to traditional thinking in China, this type of single mother often receives unfair treatment and even discrimination from the public. The case of a Taiwanese woman named Sarah Gao proves this point(Wu, 2021). She became a single mother because she was accidentally pregnant with her boyfriend’s child and decided to keep it. However, as a head of an investment fund, she did not get any postnatal benefits from her company because she did not have a marriage certificate. Despite taking seven months off sick and maternity leave, the company only paid one-thirtieth of her usual salary. After her absence, the company even required her to resign. In addition, these types of single mothers occupy a gray legal zone in China. Under Chinese law, the government does not explicitly prohibit single women from having children, yet almost all family policies are based on married couples (Wang, 2021).
The third main group of single mothers in China includes two types of single mothers: one who is unable to conceive and chooses to adopt, and another who chooses to adopt or surrogate because they have never married. Compared to the previous types, this group is more fortunate. They have a higher social status and mainly consist of financially independent women who are anti-marriage. Those women have relatively high-income levels and education which can support themselves and their children. Nevertheless, many of them see marriage as a potential block to economic independence. Thus, they choose to not get married (Loh, 2022). Also, related institutions have broadened the range of single mothers who qualified for adopting children (New Rules for Single Mothers Adopting from China, 2015) which means that Chinese society has given much support to this group of single mothers. However, they still face some problems. These single mothers find it difficult to handle parent-child relationships with their adopted children because they are not related by blood. A widow named Gao from Shenyang had an adoptive daughter who was almost unfilial to her after adulthood (Liu, 2013). She even sought help from the news center due to difficulty in elderly care.
To sum up, although various types of single mothers have different social statuses in China, they still all struggle and some of the problems are shared across the groups.
II. Diverging Needs, Shared Destiny: Difficulties and Potential Solutions
In China, single mothers face a complex set of social norms and legal challenges. Traditional values and stereotypes often stigmatize divorced or unwed mothers, making it difficult for them to access support and resources. There is also a cultural taboo surrounding unwed mothers, and they are often subject to discrimination and ostracism. Many other people think of Chinese single mothers as casual and self-hating women. Thus, Chinese single mothers and their children always fall into an inferiority complex. Similarly, divorced mothers may also face stigma and negative attitudes, such as being seen as failures or being blamed for the breakdown of their marriage. These social norms can create significant obstacles for single mothers in terms of finding employment, accessing housing, and obtaining social support. Additionally, generational conflict may arise when single mothers by choice face criticism from older generations who hold traditional values and beliefs about marriage and family.
The legal system also provides little protection for single mothers, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination in employment and housing (The“Invisible Group” of Chinese Society, 2019). Nonetheless, the birth rate in China has been steadily declining for years, which has raised concerns about an aging population and potential economic impacts. The government has implemented various policies to encourage people to have more children, such as relaxing the three-child policy and offering incentives like longer maternity leave and tax deductions. This raised questions about the potential convenience and possibility for single mothers by choice to have children (Mullen, 2021). In addition, the rise of online communities brings new opportunities for single mothers to access support and quality advice. These communities provide a space for single mothers to connect with others who share similar experiences and challenges. They can also provide access to information and resources that may be difficult to find elsewhere. For instance, single mothers can share parenting tips, offer emotional support, and discuss legal and financial issues related to single parenthood. There has been increasing attention towards some small-scale measures though, as it is just a regional program that has not been implemented nationwide. Changes in attitudes, policies, and supportive platforms may show that an increasingly friendly environment is being established for single mothers, yet more concrete actions are needed to help single mothers navigate social and legal challenges.
Faced with a variety of challenges, single mothers in China need a range of support services to help them navigate their circumstances. These services can be categorized into several key areas, including legal assistance, financial support, social and organizational support, online and offline community resources, and mental and physical health resources but are still limited in availability. There is increasing attention and some welfare services available to help single mothers in China. In 2018, the President of the National Women’s Federation specifically mentioned in his closing speech at the 12th National Congress of Chinese Women that they would strive to “care for ordinary women, especially impoverished women, left behind women and children, single mothers, elderly women, and other groups, and to do good things, solve difficulties, and do practical things for them” (Peng, 2018). This is also the first time single mothers have been separately classified as a group in need of social support. There are some instances to confirm this statement: to improve the rate of employment of single mothers, solve single mothers’ difficulties including acquiring new skills, then increasing economic benefits and alleviate the difficulties of single mother families in the street, the Qianshan Street Women's Federation organizes a microprogram to provide employment training for single mothers. To improve single mothers’ mental health, an official account called ‘A Mom’ was established on TikTok in 2015. They posted videos online about providing psychological reconstruction counseling to single mothers, telling them how to raise their children alone, and sharing many experiences of single mothers. Within seven years, they helped 30,000 single mothers in China.
While there are some existing support programs available to single mothers in China, there is still much work to be done to ensure that all of their needs are met. Additional welfare services could include expanded access to affordable childcare, job training, and employment services, counseling and mental health support, and increased social and community resources to help single mothers build strong support networks. For example, legal assistance can help single mothers navigate complex legal issues related to child custody, divorce, and property rights. Employment services can help single mothers develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the job market and achieve financial stability. Physical and mental health resources can help single mothers manage stress and promote overall well-being. Affordable childcare can help single mothers balance work and parenting responsibilities, and community resources and social support can help single mothers build strong relationships and connections within their communities. Any part of these services is significant in Chinese single mothers’ lives. By providing more comprehensive support services, China can help single mothers better manage the challenges they face and improve outcomes for both themselves and their children. Such services can help single mothers achieve economic self-sufficiency, promote health and wellness, and build strong support networks within their communities. By contrast, in the United States, single mothers can gain various welfare such as financial support, food bank, and so forth.
Overall, comprehensive support services are an essential component of efforts to support single mothers in China. By providing a range of services and resources that address the many challenges faced by single mothers, China can greatly help ensure that these families have the support they need to thrive and succeed.
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