Amid Plans to Abolish One-Child Policy Next Year, Oppression Continues for Chinese Women


In 1979, China enacted a one-child policy to limit resource strains on what was, at the time, a poor country unable to manage a rapidly growing population. Over the past three and a half decades, this policy is estimated to have prevented about 400 million births and has significantly shaped economic and cultural structures within China. Yet, numbers and statistics are of little use when it comes to quantifying the true impact of the one-child policy. Although it has been strictly upheld throughout the country, poor women living in rural areas have been disproportionately affected by its brutal enforcement. The punishment for having multiple children most commonly comes in the form of a large fine, which a 2014 study claims to be anywhere from 10% to 20% of a family’s annual income. This heavy financial burden is one that only upper- and middle-class families are able to shoulder. Although economic development over the past few decades has resulted in the establishment of a newfound “middle class” and the near-eradication of poverty in urban areas, those who live in rural areas where poverty is most concentrated cannot pay these fines.

For those unable to pay, the consequences are devastating. Involuntary sterilization and forced abortions ordered by government officials are a common means of preventing “unwanted” births, not to mention brutal methods of infanticide. Due to the patrilineal structure of Chinese society and the usefulness of men in rural areas where physical labor is a main source of income, female children are disproportionately subject to infanticide. In the 2000’s, there were 28 deaths per every 1000 live female births, in comparison to 21 per every 1000 live male births. As a result, there is a growing gender imbalance among young people in China. In 2008, there was an estimated 1.22 males for every female in China, which has since dropped to 1.16 males for every female. The National State Population and Family Planning Commission projects that in 2020, within the demographic of marriage-age individuals in China, males will outnumber females by 30 million.

Although some argue that China’s strict family planning policies have helped many women gain access to birth control and other contraceptives, the reality is that only married women have experienced this benefit. Because of this focus on married women, many of the birth control methods advocated for by the government are long-term, such as IUDs and sterilization. For example, a 2008 study reported that for women ages 15-49, 39.6% used IUDs and 33% used female sterilization, while only 1.7% used the pill and 4.3% used male condoms. As a result, younger populations are not receiving sufficient education about short-term birth control options. Although the percentage of women ages 15-49 who didn’t use any form of birth control was only 14% in 2008, compared to 31.5% in the U.S., it is important to understand exactly how these numbers break down to paint an accurate picture of China’s situation. In doing so, one will find that these numbers reflect an attempt by the Chinese government to limit pregnancies only for married women, rather than provide comprehensive, inclusive birth control to all women.

Among the reasons that China has cited for swapping the one-child policy in favor of a two-child policy, none of them include an increased desire to promote the reproductive rights of women. In fact, China’s two-child policy threatens women’s reproductive rights in both theory and practice. Unfortunately, there is not enough reliable data on pregnancy and birth patterns in China to determine how many women would still be subject to forced abortions, even after the lifting of the one-child policy, which is expected to take effect in March of 2016. Many human rights organizations, such as China Life Alliance and Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, have asserted that the adoption of the two-child policy likely will not change the “coercive and intrusive forms of contraception and forced abortions.”

Regardless of such interventions by the government, the entire premise of this law is contrary to women’s reproductive rights. William Nee, a Honk Kong-based activist for Amnesty International, asserts that “the state has no business in regulating how many children people have…If China is serious about respecting human rights, the government should immediately end such punitive controls over peoples’ decisions to plan families and have children.” Furthermore, this policy will only be applicable to married couples, which excludes all women who wish to conceive out of wedlock, denying these women the right to have any jurisdiction whatsoever over their reproductive choices. Additionally, should a single woman find herself pregnant, she would be unable to access the prenatal care that is given to families with reported, legal pregnancies. Taking into account this questionable lack of consideration of women’s reproductive rights, the new policy allowing two children per family appears to have greater overall benefits for the government than on the ground.


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