When Yi Ran learned she was pregnant three years ago she was overwhelmed with fear. The 30-year-old store assistant was not married, her boyfriend was just an occasional relation and she felt at her age this could be the last chance to have a child.
But as she mustered courage and decided to carry on with her pregnancy, the woman fell into an invisible growing world of unwed mothers struggling to survive in tradition-dominated China. Every year the number of women giving birth out of wedlock grows by 10-13 percent, and their age becomes increasingly young, according to surveys carried by local press.
Like many others, Yi Ran did not tell anybody in her entourage about the pregnancy. She chose instead to quit her job, open an online store and work from home, where she can look after her son at the same time.
She said that her heart is heavy with anxiety as she strives to make ends meet while a fine imposed on illegal births still looms large over her days.
“I fear I will not be able to pay” she said.
Yi Ran’s son also does not exist on China’s population records, because he has no household registration - hukou in Chinese - available only to children born within the frame of legal marriage.
The plight of single mothers
The question of young women giving birth out of wedlock rose to attention a month ago when firemen rescued an abandoned baby from a sewage pipe. The case made headlines in China and shocked the whole nation.
A 22-year-old waitress in southeast China gave birth in a public toilet
, then flushed the newborn’s body away in an attempt to avoid condemnation and punishment for bearing a child without being married. Only after the baby was rescued days later did she come out to explain that fear and dismay at her future as a single mother led to her actions. Police, however, returned the child to his mother.
Rising incomes, liberal sexual behavior and growing mobility are all impacting women’s choices on family and relations.
A survey conducted by the Guangdong Province Research Center on Family Planning revealed that 50 to 80 percent of female migrant workers in the province have premarital sex; among them 50 to 60 percent have had in accidental pregnancy.
When they decide to keep their baby, single women are aware they are breaking the law. Chinese family planning agencies punish any contravention of the one-child policy, including birth out of wedlock.
Wei Wei, a social worker with Little Bird - an NGO that provides help for migrant workers - says Chinese society does not support aid to unwed mothers, as other causes come first in the helping line.
“Their status is illegal, they do not have any legal protection. And this is a thorny social group, there’s no organization that looks after them,” says Mr. Wei.
Wei Wei said the phenomenon is widespread, especially in manufacturing clusters like Guangzhou and Shenzhen where migrant workers flock together.
“The biggest problem they face once their partner abandons them is the issue of hukou, they are not able to get a household registration for the child” he said. “They also find themselves in very hard economic condition, because the original family excludes them, they do not have any income and it’s hard for them to find a job.”
Yi Ran’s son is now three years old.
Without the household registration he will not be allowed into kindergarten and each time he falls ill, medical fees are higher than average. But as she does not posses any marriage certificate, the young woman is not able to apply for registration.
“Getting a household registration for my son is my biggest concern, that’s where I would really need help” she said.
Little Bird’s Wei Wei said the law does not consider this situation.
“According to Chinese regulation if they do not marry before giving birth, registering the kid is a huge problem.”
Solutions are scarce, Wei said, and one includes marriage.
“They can marry somebody and then apply for a hukou for the kid, in this way the problem can be solved.”
Fines for unwed mothers
On the other hand, no solution is available to avoid the social compensation fees imposed by local government on unwed mothers for breaking the one-child policy.
Last month Wuhan city government sparked controversy when it announced a new regulation targeting women giving birth out of wedlock. Article 26 of the regulation on population management, currently under revision, states that ‘unwed people giving birth or unable to provide certificate of the partner’ must pay a social compensation fee in accordance with local law.
Li Yun, a women’s rights lawyer based in Guangzhou, said that Wuhan’s policies put an unfair financial load on these women.
“The fine set is double the amount of the fine for couple who have more than one child” she said. “This is probably because the number of children born out of wedlock is increasingly high, but it’s unfair and many are against the rule.”
The burden of fines often weighs only on single mothers, as partners abandon them.
The amount varies and in certain areas can be the equivalent of one year’s income. People like Yi Ran, who do not enjoy family support and fall outside social welfare programs aimed only at married couples, find it very difficult to pay social compensation fees.
But public opinion is reacting to Wuhan’s new law. Earlier this month local students took to the street protesting the measure.
On the fringes of society, where no help is available to them, unwed mothers rely heavily on each other.
Many go on the Internet to find help and moral relief.
More than 3,000 users are active in an online chat dedicated to unwed mothers on Internet portal Baidu, said the forum’s moderator Yiyi.
Yi Ran explains that the Internet is the only place where she can express her feelings and frustrations as a single mother. Never has she sought help from strangers or social welfare.
“There are things I cannot say in real life, but the Internet is my little space of freedom” she said.
Yang, an officer at the All China Women’s Federation in Beijing’s Dongcheng District, acknowledges that unwed mothers rarely seek help at government-sponsored agencies like theirs.
“We basically do not have a service for unmarried mothers because there is not this need in society and nobody asks us for this kind of help.”
But as long as social perception of unmarried mothers does not change, it will be difficult for these women to come out.
Lawyer Li Yun said women who give birth out of wedlock live under high pressure. “People basically believe it’s a personal mistake, it’s their personal responsibility to be a single mother” she said. “They receive moral condemnation by society.”