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© 2021 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

This piece is taken from the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership’s new collection, Essays on Equality: The politics of childcare. Read the full collection here.  

For 35 years – from 1980 to 2015 – the Chinese government maintained a one-child policy, subjecting millions of women to forced contraception, forced sterilisation, and forced abortion. Now, because of plummeting birth rates, the government desperately wants women in the country to have more children. Since 2016, the authorities moved swiftly from a one- to two- to three-child policy. These changes were buttressed with tax cuts, subsidies, cash rewards and other incentives, and laced with propaganda about the virtue and duty of having more children.

But none of these have worked well so far: China’s birth rate continues to drop. The total fertility rate decreased from 2.6 in the late 1980s to just 1.15 in 2021. In fact, in 2022 the population might have declined for the first time since the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961, according to a projection by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

When the government announced the three-child policy in June 2021, it was met with widespread cynicism online. “I’m not buying three Rolls-Royces not because there’s any restriction, but because they’re expensive,” a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo read. “I want to sell my quota to rich people,” wrote another.

But for women in China, a significant additional reason for their unwillingness to have more children is the unequal burden of childcare responsibilities they would shoulder and its potential detrimental impact on their career.

When the two-child policy was in effect – from 2016 to 2021 – a popular internet saying described the impossible position working women in China faced: “If you haven’t had children, employers regard you as an ‘extra-large time bomb’ that will explode twice [take maternity leave twice]. If you’ve had one child, you’re a ‘time bomb’ likely to have a second child at any time. If you already have two children, you must be too busy taking care of the children so [you] can’t focus on work”.

No wonder few women want a third child even now that they can. According to a 2022 online survey of professional women by the job search website Zhilian Zhaopin, only 0.8 per cent of respondents said they wanted to have three children.

The same study reported that 61 per cent of surveyed female job applicants – compared with 32 per cent of male applicants – said they had been asked about their childbearing or childrearing status by potential employers. Over 38 per cent of surveyed women said their career prospects were negatively affected by marriage and childrearing, while only 18 per cent of men reported the same.

A 2020 study on the impact of family planning policy changes on urban women by the Women’s Studies Institute of China reported that 45 per cent of respondents said their employment was negatively affected by pregnancy or childrearing. Over one-third reported income loss, and more than 20 per cent described losing opportunities for training or promotions. Another 13 per cent said they were fired or forced to resign, and eight per cent said they experienced demotion.

A major driver of pregnancy-based discrimination is that companies do not want to take on an employee who might be absent during the three to six months of maternity leave, and the costs associated with hiring a replacement. Mothers in China have much longer mandatory parental leave than fathers – and in some regions, fathers have none at all.

Another factor underpinning this grim reality for women is the traditional and deeply discriminatory gender roles and practices: women are primarily responsible for childcare in their families and are expected to subordinate career aspirations to these family obligations. A 2015 study by Renmin University in China showed that, among families with a child or the youngest child under three, 63 per cent had the mother as the primary caregiver, while 32 per cent had the grandparents playing that role. The percentage of families in which the father was the primary caregiver was exceedingly low. According to a 2019 study by the National Bureau of Statistics, on average, women in China spent three hours and 48 minutes per day on unpaid domestic work, which includes childcare, almost three times more than men, who spent one hour and 32 minutes on average.

The Chinese government has in recent years taken some actions to assist women in the workplace. In November, the government amended the Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law, the highest law concerning gender equality in the country, for the first time in nearly 30 years. Among the provisions to combat gender discrimination in the workplace, the law banned employers from inquiring or investigating the marital and maternal status of female job applicants or making such status a condition for employment.

“Birth limits, no matter the number, are fundamentally an infringement on women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy”

While laws and regulations with similar provisions already exist, elevating them into the Women’s Protection Law, which took effect in January 2023, will hopefully strengthen enforcement, which has been poor so far. And in August 2022, 17 central government agencies jointly issued a notice outlining the government’s plan to increase the birth rate, with one of the major measures being increasing government-sponsored childcare facilities and services.

These are positive steps, but the government needs to go further. It should develop programmes to reduce discriminatory gender norms related to childcare responsibilities, end discriminatory parental leave policies, expand parental leave policies and protections for both men and women who wish to take it, and ensure availability and affordability of childcare and other forms of professional caregiving. And most importantly, the government must abolish the three-child policy because birth limits, no matter the number, are fundamentally an infringement on women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy.

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