VANCOUVER: Chinese couples’ reproductive choices are profoundly affected by fertility policies, particularly the well-known one-child policy strictly enforced in urban areas for more than three decades.
Since a universal two-child policy was launched by the Chinese government on Jan 1, 2016, all couples have been allowed to have two children.
This means an additional 90 million women can have a second child.
The two-child policy is expected to alleviate some population problems China is facing, including rapid population ageing, skewed sex ratios and a shrinking workforce.
However, little attention has been paid to how the new policy might affect gender equality.
Do women under the new two-child policy have the ability to stop having children when they no longer want more children? The answers have far-reaching implications for women’s rights in China.
Unlike Canada and many European countries that use generous family-friendly policies to encourage fertility and facilitate work-family balance, the Chinese government no longer provides welfare benefits such as child-care subsidies or publicly funded kindergartens.
Because of the lack of these policies, the employment rates and earnings of mothers increasingly lag behind those of fathers.
While the one-child policy greatly constrained Chinese couples’ childbearing decisions, the implementation of the universal two-child policy means decisions about whether to have a second child are more dynamic, flexible and subject to negotiation between spouses.
MARITAL POWER AND FERTILITY PRESSURES
In a recently published study by my colleague Dr Yongai Jin and I on the effect of couple dynamics, including marital power and fertility pressures from husbands, on women’s fertility autonomy in urban China, we looked at over 1,100 married mothers in urban areas who already had one child in 2016 and desired no more than two children.
We considered women who intended to have a second birth against their own desires as having “low fertility autonomy”.
In the survey, women were asked to indicate who had the greatest power in their families. About 46 per cent of women in our sample reported that they exercised greater power than their husbands in their marital relationships.
We found that women’s perceived marital power helped mitigate the negative impact of spousal pressure on women’s fertility autonomy.
Among women who perceived themselves as having less power in marriage, pressure from their husbands increased the likelihood that women intended to have a second child, despite the fact that they had no desire to have another baby.
In contrast, when women reported themselves as having greater power in their marriages, their intentions to have a second child did not change with levels of pressure from their husbands.
We also found that women’s marital power increased with their share of household income, whereas fertility pressure from husbands persisted regardless of women’s income shares.
A VICIOUS CIRCLE
Our research suggests gender inequality in urban China is a vicious circle. A widening gender pay gap and growing discrimination against mothers will likely diminish the relative economic resources women bring to the family, and in turn reduce women’s marital power.
All this has negative implications for women’s ability to choose their own paths. Their ability to say no to their husbands when they do not want more children diminishes.
Meanwhile, as Chinese women continue to carry a disproportionate share of family responsibilities such as housework and child care, having more children and greater family demands could increase tensions between work and family, and potentially strain their careers.
HELP WITH HOLDING UP HALF THE SKY
In China’s earlier years, the Chinese government built a social welfare system to relieve women of the domestic obligations associated with taking care of children and actively promoted notions of gender equality such as “women hold up half the sky”.
Ironically, in recent decades, the state has withdrawn from welfare provisioning and its egalitarian gender ideology has been more muted.
Given the lack of family-friendly policies and the government’s inattention to gender equality, the conflict to between work and family responsibilities for women may worsen, as they bear the burden and opportunity costs associated with child-bearing and child-rearing disproportionately.
Policies aimed at reducing the gender pay gap and promoting an egalitarian division of labour between husbands and wives would increase women’s marital power and fertility autonomy.
This in turn could mitigate the disadvantages of raising children women face, and enhance their status in a new era where China is actively promoting a two-child policy.
Yue Qian is assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.