Why are Chinese women stigmatised in work after having a miscarriage?

Chinese women have since 1951 been entitled to time off work following a miscarriage.
PHOTO: The Straits Times file

New Zealand on March 25 approved laws to give couples three days of paid leave from work following a miscarriage or stillbirth, joining a growing list of nations that have approved such legislation.

China and India have had such laws since the 1950s and 60s, but New Zealand’s leave provisions stand out for also covering the mother’s partner, including former spouses if they are the biological parent. It also applies to those seeking to adopt or have a child through surrogacy.

Chinese women have since 1951 been entitled to time off work following a miscarriage. While this reflected a step forward in women’s reproductive rights, experts say leave provisions for miscarriage in China are more impressive on paper than in reality. Women in China also have stigma to deal with. 

Being one of the earliest countries to offer leave provisions on miscarriage, China has to thank its generation of feminists in the 1950s, who fought for women’s rights in the early days of the People’s Republic of China, said Dong Yige, an assistant professor on gender and sexuality studies at the University at Buffalo in New York.

“Miscarriages are a natural and inevitable process of pregnancy. They should be normalised. As long as you are pregnant, there is a chance of miscarriage. Your benefit and well-being after a miscarriage should be guaranteed,” she said.

“We cannot define one being more valuable than the other simply because the result of pregnancy is a baby born, while a miscarriage does not produce anything except for the woman suffering. Both processes are part of a holistic package of women as a reproducer.”

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The numbers

There are no official statistics on miscarriages in China, but a study of 282,797 pregnant women that ran from 2004 to 2008 and was published in the journal BMC Medicine said miscarriages occurred in 10 per cent of cases. A total of 14.65 million babies were born in China in 2019.

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Women in China are allowed 15 days of paid leave if the miscarriage occurs in the first four months of pregnancy and 42 days if it is later.

Jing Wang, a lawyer at Buren in Shanghai said provincial and municipal governments either followed the national requirements or set higher criteria, including legal consequences when companies failed to comply with them.

For instance, in Guangdong province, women who miscarry during the first four months of pregnancy are entitled to 15 to 30 paid days based on doctor recommendations. After the fourth month and before the third semester, the leave entitlement is 42 paid days. In the third semester, it is 75 paid days.

Party policy

The Communist Party first set the amount of paid leave at 30 days, but this was changed in 1988 to an unspecified time period determined by a doctor, which was likely the result of the one-child birth policy rolled out in 1979, Dong said.

In 2012, the Special Provisions on Labor Protection for Female Employees repealed earlier versions to provide up to 42 paid days following a miscarriage.

“That is a clear signal of the state moving from a stringent population policy to something nearly pronatalist. And the larger background is China’s population crisis with low fertility rates and an ageing population,” Dong said.

The procedure to apply for miscarriage leave varied as companies had their own policies, Wang said.

“Companies may require female employees to provide certain documentary proof issued by medical institutions … such as a written medical history record, doctors’ notes on the employees’ health condition and their medical advice,” she said.

Stigma & shame

Joy Lin, founder of women’s rights initiative Wequality, said that despite the legislation, women in China were hesitant to take leave following a miscarriage due to stigma in the workplace.

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“Giving birth is celebrated because you are contributing to society. Anything else regarding women’s bodies, like the female reproductive system or women’s sexuality is considered shameful,” she said.

Drawing parallels to how the subject of menstruation is saddled with superstitions and secrecy, Lin said: “Miscarriages are kind of the same, it is shameful to speak of. Why did you have a miscarriage? [Misconceptions could be] because you were not taking care of your baby. Or it could be moral, like because you had too many sexual partners.”

When a woman applied for such leave, these things contributed to the stigma she experienced, she said.

The current legislation also leaves large swathes of female employees without maternity benefits, even as policymakers attempt to engineer a baby boom amid declining birth rates.

Working women

Women employed in the informal economy are also offered fewer labour protections.

“For informal workers, most do not have social insurance. They sell their time and skills as a product. If they experience a miscarriage and take time off, they would not earn money during this time, compared to those employed in the formal sector,” said Lin, referring to women working in delivery services, entertainment or in service industries as waitresses or masseurs.

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The chances of women working in blue-collar sectors claiming their leave entitlements was even lower, considering the turnover rates of factory-based work, Dong said.

“Most of them come from rural areas and are here temporarily to get some income. They do not expect to be long-term employees, so there is no way they can claim [leave],” she said.

Workers were also not typically informed of the benefits they were entitled to, she said. However, Dong said she did see a shift in the trends as labour disputes were growing as more people became aware of the legal channels available to claim employment rights, including those for women who had been through a miscarriage.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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