Single Mothers: The “Invisible Group” of Chinese Society

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Over the past month, China Partnership has been focusing on the stories and needs of women in honor of Women’s History Month. The following excerpts were originally published in The Paper. In his article, Gao Biye, a post-doctoral scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Sociology, explains the difficulty that China’s current social policies pose for women who choose to give birth and raise their children as single mothers. Here, we are given a glimpse into the plight of this “invisible group” of moral outcasts, despised by society and penalized by the law.  

As we pray for women in the Chinese church this week, we invite you to take a moment to also pray for these single mothers and their children. Read through the following article excerpts and then pause to pray according to the provided points and according to the Spirit’s leading. 

Ultimately, pray that the Chinese church would not be outdone in kindness, but rather that it would be a channel of Christ’s love for the lost and true hope for the sinner. 

“For the most part, China does not yet have demographic data regarding single mothers. There are many reasons for this. First, this group is considered ‘illegal’ in Chinese society for violating the state’s family planning policy. Therefore, they are not officially recognized. Second, some tend to hide their identity as unmarried mothers. Moreover, these identities are subject to change. After meeting compatible partners, they may tie the knot and become married women. In order to shed light on the circumstances these mothers are dealing with, I conducted in-depth field research among them from 2014 to 2015…

Most single mothers refused my invitation. One commented, ‘Each time we talk about this, we have to walk through the pain, anger, and hurt again. We have come a long way to finally reach some peace.’ The words of this single mother demonstrate why this group chooses to remain silent. As for those who did the interview with me, many broke down in tears during our phone calls. As a result of their choice to give birth, they have suffered legal punishment, moral shame, and financial hardship. Each time they narrate their experiences, they are reminded of the heartbreak. 

The single mothers I contacted live in different cities in China. I do not know their real names or what they look like. Many even refused to tell me their birthplace and current residence. But through their words, I could sense their kindness, their struggle, and their bravery. Through deep conversations with these single mothers, I discovered how government policies, financial stress, and social discrimination have made their lives extremely difficult.”

Pray: 

  • Secular wisdom does not know the path of grace. It is either blind to human sinfulness or it despises the sinner. Ask God to raise up his church to care for single mothers in Christ-honoring ways, ministering to them in grace and truth. 

  • Praise God forstories of courage – stories of single mothers choosing the hard way of giving birth. May they come to know the saving power of Christ and learn to walk in newness of life. 

  • Ask God to give single mothers more courage to speak out about their stories so that the church may become more aware of their needs.

Challenge #1: Registering Children for Hukous

“Single mothers face an urgent but thorny problem—how to register their children for hukous.[1]

Xiaojun, unwilling to meet in person or talk on the phone, sent me a personal account of her story. She wrote, ‘My child was not granted a birth certificate and still does not have a hukou. The family planning department created a case and fined me 80,000 RMB. They fined him (Xiaojun’s partner) over 100,000 RMB. Together the fines total over 200,000 RMB. They said even if I pay off my fine, our child cannot register for a hukou until both of our fines are paid. He will never pay the fine, so there doesn’t appear to be any hope that our child will get a hukou. She is almost three and about to enter preschool. Without a hukou, education will become a huge issue for her in the future.’

…[Chinese law] is saying that the only people who can legally give birth are married couples. By giving birth out of wedlock, single women violate this article, and their births are considered ‘illegal births.’

The family planning regulations in every province punish births out of wedlock, although the amount fined and the way in which couples are fined differ… In some provinces, single mothers face a more severe punishment if they have children with married men… Some provinces, however, do not distinguish between having a child out of wedlock with a married person and having a child out of wedlock with a single person…

To many unmarried mothers, the exorbitant social compensation fee is daunting. But if they do not pay off the fine, their children will not be able to register for a hukou. And if they do not register for a hukou, they cannot obtain citizenship. Consequently, they will be ineligible to receive social benefits like public education, healthcare, and social security. It will even be difficult for them to purchase train and air tickets for traveling.

These mothers rack their brains trying to get hukous for their children. Some obtain hukous by means of relationships with people back in their hometowns in the villages. The fines are less in the villages, but registering there means these children cannot attend public schools where they are currently living. Others register their child on another family’s hukou. And still others are quietly waiting for the census, hoping that during the census their children can obtain a hukou without spending any money. Among the single mothers I contacted, less than one third have successfully registered their child…”

Pray:

  • Where corruption is seen as the norm and integrity does not often amount to political gains, pray for the increase of wise, God-fearing officials who notice social injustices and labor to improve current laws for the common good. 

  • Ask God to protect and provide for the children of unmarried parents, every one of whose lives he treasures. 

  • Ask God to financially bless churches caring for single mothers so that they may provide diaconal assistance regarding the financial burdens single mothers face in China.

Challenge #2: Societal Discrimination  

“The other challenge confronting single mothers is societal discrimination.

A single Buddhist mother said: ‘If I had aborted my child, I would be having a good life. But I decided to keep the child and to become a single mother. Single mothers are particularly vulnerable to societal discrimination. Many people think we are promiscuous.’ The fact that many think single mothers are ‘promiscuous’ shows the moral discrimination single mothers face in society.  

There are a couple reasons why single mothers are morally condemned in Chinese society. On the one hand, they defy traditional sexual and reproductive ethics. On the other hand, their decision to give birth breaks from the traditional family structure of one husband and one wife. The partners of some single mothers are married. These single mothers will very likely be called humiliating names like ‘ernai’ (concubine) or ‘xiaosan’ (mistress) by society.[2] 

Single mothers have reproductive freedom. It is unreasonable to place this moral burden on their shoulders. The partners of those being called ‘ernai’ and ‘xiaosan’ have violated marriage law, and yet society does not humiliate them with similar names. This reveals the gender inequality inherent in society’s moral condemnation. Moreover, the definition of ernaiis quite ambiguous. Not all single mothers whose partners are married are ernai.  

For instance, Meigui’s partner is married. But Meigui doesn’t consider herself a xiaosanor an ernaibecause she has more financial resources than the father of her child. Moreover, she has basically taken on the responsibility of raising the child all by herself. Even so, Meigui has suffered many years of insults by the wife of her partner. ‘We both feel miserable in this relationship, and the law doesn’t protect us. To some degree, I am a victim too. But what am I supposed to do? I’m not sure.’ Those who use the term ernai stigmatize single mothers by embracing traditional societal morals.

Moral pressure pushes many single mothers to hide their identity. For example, consider Meigui.  Even though she does not see herself as a xiaosan, she still keeps her marital status a secret from her family members. ‘My hometown is somewhere else. I have lived in Guangzhou for twenty years. When I gave birth, he (her partner) went to my hometown with me and told my mother we were married. To this day, my family knows nothing about him being married to a different woman.’

Those whose partners are single also choose to hide their identity, fearing shame and a lack of understanding from society. Migrant worker Kafei, whose partner left her because his family disapproved of their relationship, chose to give birth and gave her child to her parents back home to raise for her. She continues to work in the city to support her family. Kafei said that people would ‘look down’ on her if she told them. She said she didn’t want others to know because ‘it isn’t a good thing.’ ‘Even someone who has experienced exactly the same thing won’t show me empathy.’ Therefore, she hides her identity as a single mother at work.”

Pray:

  • Pray for repentance and mercy for the fathers who have abandoned their children. Ask the Spirit to begin a work of reconciliation in their hearts.

  • Pray for women who continue in ungodly relationships to repent and find the strength in Christ to live according God’s design for life. Pray that their identities would be renewed in Christ, empowering them to live as daughters of Christ with the benefits of being his heirs.

  •  Pray against a culture that encourages abortion as a way to absolve responsibility. Pray that men and women will come to fear God and recognize the sanctity of life. 

  • Pray for the church to have a robust, public voice concerning marriage, the family, and sexual intimacy. As China’s family structures continue to deteriorate, pray that what the church has to say about God’s design of men, women, and the family is heard as good news and hope.

The Hope of Single Mothers 

“Single mothers in China hope for the same thing, that government policies would no longer fine them and that they may easily register their children for a hukou. If, in addition to this, they also received affirmation and support from society, then that would be even better. As single mother Gezi said, ‘Just raising a child is hard enough. But single mothers do not have the means to protect themselves or to live independently, much less to fight for themselves.’

…As for support from society, there are almost no organizations that help single mothers, due to the fact that their reproductive decisions are illegal according China’s family planning regulations. The only organization I found online that offers help to single mothers is unregistered and does not have a physical office. It is a Buddhist organization made up of volunteers from different Buddhist temples. The organization is struggling to stay in operation due to lack of funds. The help it can offer to single mothers is very limited.  

Single mother Mengmeng still hopes for the best. ‘I think that however different each single mother’s story is, there is one thing we all share in common—namely, as a disadvantaged group, we all need the affirmation and support of society.’ 

May the day come when mothers who give birth out of wedlock are no longer punished by laws and policies; may people be more understanding of single mothers and respect their decision to give birth; and may we see more governmental organizations and NGOs offering financial and emotional support to impoverished single mothers and children. 

Pray:

  • Pray that Christ would be the hope of single mothers in China. Ask God to provide the earthly benefits of hukous and social acceptance to the children of single mothers, but pray that both mothers and children will know of their eternal hope in heaven and the promise of the Holy Spirit for those in Christ.

  • May God’s people be a light to society by demonstrating what is good, true, noble, and life-giving through their treatment of single mothers against what is false, self-righteous, and cruel. 

  • Pray that the church becomes the first in action caring for China’s single mothers. May the glory God’s name deserves in such work not go to Buddhist organizations or secular NGOs, but may it be done in Christ’s name.

[1]Translator’s note: The hukou system is an individual and household registration system in mainland China. It is similar to social security in the US. The process of registering for a hukou is strictly regulated. A hukou serves as a form of identification and also grants access to social benefits, including but not limited to public education, healthcare, employment, and housing compensation. 

[2]Translator’s note: Ernai usually refers to a young mistress of men with wealth and high social status who primarily seek material and monetary rewards from the relationship. Xiaosan is used for women who commit adultery with men of normal social status. The term connotes wrecking others’ marriages and families. 

English translation provided by Hannah, Brent, and the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.