Having a child out of wedlock in China is believed to be, as one woman exclaimed, ‘not possible!’ The traditional attitudes and intense family and societal pressures that she perhaps imagined are not unique to China, but when combined with easy access to terminations, over the counter morning after pills and strictly enforced population control, going it alone must feel inconceivable.
Dongmei is 28 years old, a very slight and intelligent woman with a lively 2 years old daughter. Originally from a small village in Henan, she moved to Beijing and started a clothing business. When she found out she was pregnant the father, who was also her business partner, was working away. He promised to marry her when he returned, but later she refused him. “I could see he only cared about money,” she said. “I knew he would be a terrible father and lifetime husband.”
As a devout Christian, Dongmei didn’t want to have an abortion – she said she’d already done one thing wrong and didn’t want to add another. When she was 4 months pregnant, she told her mother. She tried to convince Dongmei not to have the baby because it would be hard to raise the child on her own and it would make getting a good marriage in future difficult. She told Dongmei it would be better to marry the father. Dongmei knew it was going to be tough, but she didn’t know how hard it would really be.
To give birth in a hospital in China you must have a baby permit. Without one you have no medical insurance cover and the hospital won’t take the risk in case there are complications. The baby permit is issued by the local government after they’ve checked how many children you already have against how many you’re allowed and your marriage certificate. Without the baby permit she would have to give birth back in her family home, relying on someone’s help as there are no doctors in the village. It was unlikely there would be anyone with much experience. The easy option would have been to get married, then after the birth get a divorce; it’s a straightforward legal procedure in China. But Dongmei had some savings from the business, and she thought just the two of them would be ok. She didn’t want to marry just for the baby, and instead bought a fake marriage certificate on line.
Her daughter was born in a Beijing hospital in January 2016. Getting the birth certificate was easy. She wrote on it ‘no father’ – he hadn’t visited or offered to give any financial help, so she felt this made an accurate statement. Next, the baby needed to be registered on Dongmei’s hukou. This official document proves you and your family are resident to a particular area. The place of residence is inherited from your parents. Outside the area you are registered in, there are no social benefits or free education. Its purpose is to discourage large numbers of people migrating into the cities for work. Dongmei and her newly born girl had to travel the 500 miles to her hometown and apply at the local police station.
The police wouldn’t issue her baby the hukou. She learned through someone else that they wanted money, but they were always clever enough to not ask directly. The hukou is a very important record in China; without it her daughter would not be able to go to school, or later get an ID card. Without that she would be unable to get a job, bank account, take a train, get married, or buy a house; a normal life for her daughter would be impossible. Dongmei knew that the law had been reformed in the previous month, now everyone was entitled to have a hukou. She wrote to the local mayor and he managed to get it issued. There would be many women, she said, who wouldn’t know the new law.
Living back at home meant that her father had to be told about the baby. It took him some time to accept the situation because he knew there would be no chance of Dongmei getting a good husband or a decent job. In the village she was always being asked questions about why they never see the father, what is his job etc. It was too much for her and eventually she returned with her young daughter to the anonymity of Beijing.
Back in the city the prospects of work were better, and she received some much-needed moral support from her church. Finding a job was still a challenge though. Because she doesn’t have a Beijing hukou she can’t use the public kindergartens to look after her daughter while she’s at work, and the private ones are unaffordable. Luckily Dongmei found a position where she didn’t need to work out of an office. Every morning though there is a meeting, and Dongmei treks across Beijing on the crowded subway with her little girl to work and back. She thinks that everyone in the company is too busy to ask her questions. They imagine her husband has died, or they are divorced.
“Life is really hard,” she declares. “‘I have no time for myself, no grandparents to help out, and the system makes it worse”. Because she is unmarried, she has to give money to the government every year called raising baby money. “It’s a joke. I am the one raising the baby, without any help or money.”
Many young mothers would have given up, left the child with parents, or taken their babies to an orphanage in the hope foreigners might adopt them and they would get a better chance at life abroad. Dongmei is extraordinarily courageous and independent, refusing to compromise on her principles. She is clearly determined to fight for a life and a future for them both together.