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Mothers stand alone

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-16 23:00:06

Zhao Jiating, 23, from Pukou, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, carries her baby daughter. She suddenly discovered she was pregnant, eight months after breaking up with her boyfriend. After being abandoned by her family, she decided to give birth to the child and support it by herself. Photo: CFP
Zhao Jiating, 23, from Pukou, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, carries her baby daughter. She suddenly discovered she was pregnant, eight months after breaking up with her boyfriend. After being abandoned by her family, she decided to give birth to the child and support it by herself. Photo: CFP

After a brief marriage that ended in divorce and years searching in vain for a husband, Lin Menglin decided that she would become a mother on her own.

While it's nothing unusual in the West for unwed couples or a single woman to raise children, in China it remains the choice of only a few brave souls due to social norms and legal restraints. But as China joins the rest of the world in entering the age of singledom, the need to ensure the reproductive rights of single people is bound to rise.

Immediately after college, Lin, from Fuzhou, Fujian Province, married her boyfriend. The marriage fell apart in just three months because Lin believed her boyfriend was trying to take advantage of her financially.

Lin, now 29, said it was difficult to find a husband, especially being a divorced woman without exceptional looks or wealth. "And I don't want to settle for someone I'm not completely satisfied with," Lin added.

She decided that instead of wasting years trying to find a perfect husband and a marriage that may or may not work, she'd rather just have a baby on her own.

"It was really a no-brainer for me, just a simple calculation of costs and benefits," said Lin, who describes herself as very practical.

Single women are not allowed to request for sperm donations at State-approved sperm banks. A couple would need to show their marriage certificate in order to receive the service, according to employees at the sperm banks.

So in 2009, at the age of 26, she set out to find a sperm donor online. It was similar to a matchmaking process. Lin had a specific set of criteria: over 180 centimeters in height, aged between 35 and 45, good looking, and at least college-educated. She chatted with the potential donors about their jobs, interests, medical history and so on.

After a few months of selecting, Lin found a man 14 years older than her in Northeast China. Lin got pregnant after having sex with the man and gave birth to a boy in June 2010.

Rare form of courage

It's not clear how many children are born in China out of wedlock. However, cases of illegitimate children fighting for inheritances are on the rise, according to some courts. Online communities of single mothers seeking support and advice from each other are also sprouting up.

Lin's situation is quite rare in that she made the conscious choice to get pregnant. For most unwed single mothers, pregnancies are unexpected. Some women find out that they are pregnant after breaking up with an ex and decide to have the baby on her own. In other cases, the father is unwilling or unable to marry the woman.

A woman five months into her pregnancy shared her story on one such online community. Her boyfriend's family strongly opposed their marriage and despised her for having premarital sex with her boyfriend.

Several other women said they were involved with married men who were unable or simply refused to divorce their wives.

Women who choose to keep the baby without a husband are still in the minority. Getting an abortion or simply getting married is a more common choice, as raising a baby alone poses real economic problems and obstacles derived from discriminatory policies.

Unlike in countries like the US where there financial support schemes are already in place for single mothers, there is no such support in China. Women are left to fend for themselves. And the social stigma attached to pregnancy out of wedlock leaves many women ashamed or afraid to reach out to their own parents.

In online chat groups, many young women in their early 20s said they were concerned that they couldn't provide a good future for their child and that they dared not tell their parents either.

A more practical obstacle is paperwork. There are dozens of permits and certificates involved in having a baby in China. For starters, couples need a permit from family planning authorities indicating that the couple is married and that they are having their first child.

A single woman can still give birth in a hospital, but she has to pay everything out of her own pocket because there is no reproductive insurance for single women. And to get the baby registered in the household registration system, the hukou, requires both parents' hukou, their marriage certificate, the reproductive permit and the birth certificate.

According to Chinese regulations, people who give birth out of wedlock need to pay a "social maintenance" fee to family planning authorities, which varies in different regions between half to six times the local average annual income. A woman needs to pay the fee or resort to backdoor dealings to get her baby a hukou, which governs everything from education to social security.

Not only is there no financial or legal support but having a baby out of wedlock remains scandalous in China, especially for the mother.

Procreation is still viewed as only acceptable in a marriage between a man and a woman, despite more open attitudes towards sex and premarital sex being increasingly common, said Chen Yaya, a researcher at Shanghai Academy of Social Science.

"There's a great deal of shame attached to having a baby out of wedlock, and people usually believe it's not good for either the baby or the mother," said Chen, adding that there really should be more support for unwed parents as the right to procreate should be universal.

Although laws stipulate that all children have equal rights, having a "bastard" child is still frowned upon in Chinese culture and seen as immoral, said Chen.

No voice for rape victims

It's even more difficult for rape victims to be heard. Rape cases are highly under-reported as it is often believed to be a disgrace for the victim and her family, said Wang Xingjuan, founder of Red Maple Women's Counseling Center.

"Especially in rural areas, the victims and their famiies would feel so ashamed that their reputation is ruined," said Wang, adding that the most common response is an immediate abortion or putting the baby up for adoption.

Choosing voluntarily to have a baby without getting married is not countenanced in mainstream Chinese culture. Li Yinhe, a sociologist at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, recalls a survey back in the 1980s which showed that only 3.8 percent of the adult Chinese population had never been married.

The number is rising rapidly, she said. Today there are approximately 180 million single people, according to a survey report released in 2010 by the All China Women's Federation and a matchmaking website.

This is a trend being witnessed across many countries such as the US, Russia and northern European countries, where more and more people remain unmarried all their lives. In some countries over half of newborns have unmarried parents.

The same trend will eventually happen in China, sociologists and feminists say. As more women become financially independent, fighting for their reproductive rights and those of any individual will become the next battle. But it could take a long time for the fight against tradition and the family planning policy to be victorious.

A jewelry designer working at her family's company, Lin said it isn't too difficult for her financially. She also managed to get her son a hukou through some connections.

Her 2-year-old son has not started asking questions yet. But Lin has already thought of what she will tell him when the day comes. "I'll tell him that his father and I loved each other very much but then we went our separate ways because that's just life, it's complicated like that," said Lin.

Lin still keeps in touch with her son's biological father, although she doesn't let them meet. She said she didn't want to complicate things and that she is capable and happy to raise the baby by herself. Her parents were very supportive, even though some of her female friends found her decision hard to understand.

Lin said she was not ashamed by her decision and is perfectly happy with her current status. But she still finds it difficult to explain her situation to other people, for instance, other parents at her son's school in the future.

"I'll just tell them that the father is not in the country at the moment, because it's just easier," said Lin, because she's concerned that other people might not understand and she would become the subject of gossip.

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