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How Will China’s New 2-Child Policy Affect Working Women?

Jan 05, 2016
  • Mathilda Lan

    Chinese reporter with a major international media organization

The day when China ended its one-child policy, a few racy jokes went viral in Chinese social media.

One of them went, “The end of one-child policy proves that the Party commands the gun.”

Women might also find another popular one unpleasant, “Starting the two-child policy now isn’t enough; more urgently, men should be allowed to have second wives.”

Others feared pressure from eager mother in laws: “Daughter-in-laws get ready to be nagged by your mother-in-laws,” Internet users joked bitterly.

Wait a minute, where are the moms? Isn’t childbearing ultimately their decision to make?

It’s never that simple even in Western countries, but of course more so in China, childbirth is the husband’s—and the husband’s family’s—business.

Since the announcement of the new policy, Chinese feminists have been concerned that women aren’t really given full freedom to choose whether to have a second child – or any child at all – due to cultural and public policy reasons.

Childbirth pressure

Culturally, the idea that bearing children is to carry on the family line is still entrenched today. The tradition has dragged women back for thousands of years – and unfortunately prevailing even today—pressuring Chinese women into marriage and family at a young age.

The keen family members expect childbirth right after the marriage. Before the one-child policy was effected in 1979, the more children, the better, until women gave birth to a son.

After 35 years of being deprived of childbirth rights by the government – “One family, one child” had a “fundamental national policy” since 1982 – Chinese women still don’t have the full freedom and courage to claim whether they want to bear a second child. Families – instead of legal compulsory – now could pressure them into having the second child, under the name of carrying on the family line, feminists argue.

Lack of supporting policy

While the end of one-child policy is a big step forward in terms of granting Chinese people more human rights, as some 90 million couples are supposed to benefit from it, many doubt whether it will actually increase the country’s fertility rate.

Influential Chinese feminist and scholar Lu Pin said in an interview that she absolutely supported the end of forced one-child policy, especially the violence carried out by the government against women through birth control and abortions. But allowing a second child is far from enough.

“We need more comprehensive policies to support women, allowing them to have sufficient freedom in childbirth, not being “published” for bearing children in the workplace.”

Among the dozen or so women I’ve talked to on this subject, none of them considers having a second child. And their biggest concern is: who is going to look after our children?

In China, it used to be common for grandparents to step in and provide childcare for their grandchildren. However, a gradual reduction in social security for elderly people and the disappearance of the extended family model, the responsibility of childcare now falls upon the small family.

Like women in the Western countries, Chinese women are also the ones expected to stay at home to take care of children if needed. But in China, where the social welfare system is weaker and society is less protective for working mothers, much fewer career choices are left for the female working professionals.

“Looking after one child is already a lot of work, let alone two,” one working mother told me.

Therefore, many women and are calling for more public policies to ensure women with equal employment opportunities and more flexible working hours, which would keep them from being held back by fears that they would have to give up careers.

On December 27, China’s top legislature passed a draft amendment to the current law on population and family planning. The two-child policy, which will come into force on January 1, 2016, will “award” couples expecting childbirth—either the first or second—with longer maternity leaves or other corresponding benefits.

The draft law doesn’t specify how longer the maternity leave will be or whether the husband will also enjoy it.

Internet user @moguxiaomiaomiao shared her chilling interview experience on Weibo a week after the announcement of the second-child policy.

“The executive told me all the companies were cutting recruitment now: ‘you as a married woman yet to have a child will keep you from getting employed.’”

She worries that enforcement of second child policy will worsen the gender discrimination in the work place, that companies would simply see it a waste of resources to employ women considering the maternity leaves and time off for childcare.

State media has reported a case where a company refused to accept a female graduate student’s resume when she indicated that he might get married in two years.

Sadly enough, because of the overt gender discrimination in the work place and ingrained stigma associating women with children, record high of 86% educated Chinese women feel maternal guilt – they are torn between their career and their child, according to a new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy published in 2011.

Unfortunately, a few solutions to remove the stigma – flexible work arrangements and flexible career paths for women – are rarely discussed and hardly implemented in China.

Empowering women

Before the end of the one-child policy, in rural areas, Chinese couples had been allowed a second child if the first born is a daughter.

The rampant traditional boy preference has largely contributed to China’s imbalanced sex ratio, experts say.

According to a study published in a British Medical Journal in 2009, the highest unequal sex ratios were seen in provinces that allow rural inhabitants a second child if the first is a girl.

The sex ratio at birth was close to normal for first order births, but rose steeply for second order births, especially in rural areas, where it reached 146 (143 to 149), according to the study.

China’s second child policy was introduced in the hope of increasing the country’s birth rate – now at 1.66– rectifying the imbalanced sex ratio balance, and ultimately to keep the country from getting old before it gets rich.

One of the things China needs to do, according to Nobel Prize winner and economist Amartya Sen, is to have families overcome the widespread “boy preference.”

Sen believes that while the one-child policy wasn’t the main factor of China’s declining birth control; women’s progress was. Empowering women by education and more career choices is the ultimate solution to China’s population conundrum, he wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times.

For Chinese women, the hope that besides the grand national needs for increasing labor force and fertility rates, their benefits and needs will be taken in to consideration in decision making. Otherwise, women are just walking wombs.

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