Recording & Review: Ensuring Single Women’s Equal Access to Maternity Insurance

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Maternity insurance [生育保险] is one of the five programs that make up China’s social insurance system. Funded by employer contributions, maternity insurance reimburses women for pregnancy- and childbirth-related medical expenses and offers them a source of income during maternity leave. In all provinces except Guangdong, however, single women have been ineligible for maternity insurance benefits. Local legislation requires claimants to provide their marriage license or some other government-issued document available only to married couples, in effect barring single women from obtaining the benefits. In a legal battle that spanned four years, Zou Xiaoqi, a single mother from Shanghai, repeatedly challenged the city’s discriminatory policy in court but ultimately to no avail. (In late 2020, Shanghai suddenly dropped the marriage requirement, but reversed course just a few months later.)

With judicial remedies unavailable, some started to explore other means to advocate for a more inclusive maternity insurance system. In May 2022, Liang Hongxia, a law professor at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law, requested the NPC Standing Committee’s Legislative Affairs Commission (LAC) to review the legality of Yunnan’s maternity-insurance legislation, which limited such benefits to married women. Prof. Liang advanced two main arguments in her request for review (which she kindly shared with us but has requested that we keep private for now). She first argued that the Yunnan legislation unlawfully prevented single women from acquiring maternity insurance when national legislation does not distinguish between married and single women on this issue. In addition, she cited the Chinese leadership’s recent relaxation of the country’s once-draconian family planning policy, including the repeal of penalties for above-quota births and the decoupling of birth registration from a child’s access to social welfare benefits. “The current overall approach to China’s family planning policy,” she observed, “is to promote childbirths and increase birthrate.” The policy basis for denying single women access to maternity benefits as a way to limit childbirths,[*] therefore, “no longer exists.” Prof. Liang went on to make the case that some single Chinese women have a “strong desire” to have kids and are “fully capable” of shouldering parenting obligations by themselves. In concluding, she wrote:

Ensuring maternity insurance benefits for single women . . . not only provides a kind of financial support for single women and children born out of wedlock, but is even more a symbol of equal status—it best embodies the State and society’s commitment to the human rights ideals of inclusivity, openness, and diversity.

Recently, the LAC informed Prof. Liang that it substantially agreed with her arguments and had requested Yunnan to abolish the marriage requirement. As reported by the Legal Daily on September 20, the LAC concluded that local restrictions on single women’s access to maternity insurance no longer conformed to the Party’s decision to “optimize the birth policy” and related national reforms and were inconsistent with “the spirit of the relevant constitutional and statutory provisions.” Liang Ying, director of the LAC’s Office for Recording and Reviewing Regulations, further added that broadening the coverage of maternity insurance would “help create a more harmonious and friendlier social environment,” consistent with the Party’s decisions and the Core Socialist Values.

The same day, the Legal Daily also revealed that the LAC had launched a wider legislative clean-up campaign not limited to Yunnan. The agency directed the relevant State Council departments and all provincial legislatures to remove any “improper restrictions” on women’s access to maternity insurance now found in official documents. It has also asked those rulemaking bodies to provide an update on their progress by November 15.

With these actions, the LAC’s years-long effort to rein in restrictive local family planning legislation continues. It has conducted review of such legislation every year since 2017, either on its own initiative or prompted by citizen requests. In 2017 and 2019, it rejected local legislation that required employers to fire, respectively, private-sector and public-sector employees who exceed the birth limit. In 2021, it ruled against localities that authorized family planning officials to mandate parentage testing for individuals suspected of having above-quota births. In the past two years, the LAC also twice directed other rulemaking bodies to update their family planning legislation and other official documents in light of new national law and policy, such as the August 2021 amendment to the Population and Family Planning Law [人口与计划生育法] that codified the three-child policy and eliminated fines for violations.

Be sure to check back in late October for a major update to this post!

[*] Because China’s family planning policies have always regulated the number of permissible birth(s) per married couple, officials cannot readily apply the rules to unmarried women. And allowing single women to have children would, in officials’ view, also create other enforcement problems. For instance, they would similarly find it difficult (if not legally impossible) to apply the birth quota to a single mother who later marries or to the father of a child born out of wedlock who then marries (or is already married to) another woman. For these reasons, authorities sought to deter single women from having children by denying them maternity benefits.

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