17 March 2021
Sarah Gao had a busy job. As the head of a $76.8 million investment fund, she was often flying across China on business trips.
Then she became pregnant.
Her pregnancy was unplanned. But Gao, who was 40 and unmarried, thought she would not have many more chances to have a child. She decided to keep the baby.
She could not have predicted that her decision would lead to a nearly four-year legal battle for her protections and rights as a pregnant woman and then as a mother.
Gao's experience is an example of the difficulties Chinese women face when they raise a child outside of a marriage. Most single mothers cannot receive public benefits, including paid maternity leave and usual pregnancy exams. Some may even face financial punishment.
Gao and some other single mothers want to change this. They are part of a small group that petitioned the Legal Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress at its recent yearly meeting.
The women do not expect immediate action. But they hope their needs will be better represented in the future.
China's population is aging quickly. The government wants to see higher birth rates. In 2015, it eased restrictive family planning laws so that each family could have two children. Yet, the laws have not changed as quickly when it comes to single parents.
There is no official information on the number of single-parent households in China. But a 2014 study carried out by China's National Health Commission estimated that there would be nearly 20 million single mothers by 2020.
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, paid her 1,000 yuan ($153) a month. That was a huge drop from her usual monthly earnings of 30,000 yuan ($4,606). The company did not pay her during maternity leave.
Gao tried to fight the company for her full earnings and maternity leave benefits. Part of those benefits would have come from social insurance. Companies are required by law to give money to the insurance.
In Beijing, where Gao lives, an employee can seek those public benefits only through their company. But Gao's company refused her request. It said her materials were incomplete because she lacked a marriage license.
When she forced the issue, the company asked her to resign, but she refused. She was later dismissed. However, the company refused to give her an official letter that confirmed her dismissal, making it difficult for her to find a new job.
The company did not answer requests for comment by e-mail from The Associated Press. Phone calls to the head office in Beijing went unanswered.
Gao is seeking legal action against the company for 1 million yuan ($153,645) in back pay, in addition to her maternity leave payment.
She has lost two times in court since July 2017 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 her maternity leave."
China's family planning policy does not bar unmarried women from having children. But it does say that "the state encourages a husband and wife to have two children."
At the local level, officials have come to understand that only a married couple can have children. This becomes a barrier for single women trying to seek maternity benefits.
Many local governments require a marriage permit during this process, said Dong Xiaoying, the founder of Advocates for Diverse Family Network. The network organized Gao and other women into the group that petitioned the Legal Affairs Committee.
There have been some changes, however. In Guangdong province and Shanghai, governments have changed requirements so that a woman does not have to provide proof of marriage before getting maternity benefits.
The changes helped women like Zou Xiaoqi, a single mother and activist in Shanghai. Zou sought legal action against a Shanghai government agency in 2017 to get her maternity leave salary and the public insurance benefits. After years of media and court appearances, Zou received her benefits earlier this month.
Single moms and activists are hoping that a change on the national level can make it easier for single mothers in the rest of the country, like Gao.
Gao said, "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?"
I'm John Russell. And I'm Ashley Thompson.
The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.
Words in This Story
fund - n. an amount of money that is used for a special purpose
maternity - adj. relating to the time when a woman gives birth to a baby
benefits - n. money that is paid by a company (such as an insurance company) or by a government when someone dies, becomes sick, stops working, etc.
license - n. an official document, card, etc., that gives you permission to do, use, or have something
status - n. the position or rank of someone or something when compared to others in a society, organization, group, etc.
basis - n. something (such as an idea or set of ideas) from which another thing develops or can develop
salary - n. an amount of money that an employee is paid each year
encourage - v. to make (someone) more likely to do something