Women’s birthright

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The following op-ed by CHRD Research Coordinator Wang Songlian originally appeared in the March 8, 2011 edition of the South China Morning Post.

Women’s birthright

On International Women’s Day, Wang Songlian calls for an end to the abuses of reproductive health rights under China’s one-child policy

Wang Songlian

Updated on Mar 08, 2011

Is it still being implemented?” That’s a common response I get when I speak about China’s family planning policy. As Chinese people become wealthier, more couples can afford to pay a hefty fine or bribe to officials in order to get around the policy. The government has also introduced some exceptions to the “one-child” rule. All this leads to some confusion and speculation about the policy’s status: are people still bound by it?

The answer is a resounding “yes”. It is estimated that at least 60 per cent of Chinese couples of reproductive age – approximately 420 million men and women – are permitted to have only one child. Due to the sheer number of people affected, China’s implementation of the policy continues to be of concern. Regardless of the number of couples who have more than one child, the fact remains that the government continues to deprive citizens of their reproductive rights.

The policy is directed at both sexes, but since women shoulder most of the responsibility for birth control, they are disproportionately affected by it. Some local governments demand that women sign agreements which stipulate that they comply with various aspects of the policy, such as submitting to periodic gynaecological tests that check for pregnancies or abortions, or uncover evidence of removal of intrauterine devices (IUDs). Women must apply for a “birth permit” before they are allowed to give birth. Then, when women reach their birth quota, they are “persuaded” by officials to either have IUDs inserted or be sterilised. Unmarried women or women who have already reached their quota may be subjected to forced abortions.

Under the pressures of surveillance and coercion, couples have very little choice but to go along with what the officials “advocate”. As one woman wrote: “If you don’t do it, those people from the family planning office won’t let you get away with it; they will abduct your family … they’ll tell you to take a rest in a guestroom … where you can only come out after … you get the IUD inserted.”

The worst human rights violations associated with the implementation of the family planning policy tend to occur during campaigns, usually in the countryside, by local governments to crack down on what officials regard as widespread non-compliance with the policy. On April 7 last year, Puning city in Guangdong initiated the “Second Child Sterilisation Special Action” after being criticised at a provincial meeting for performing poorly in the implementation of the policy. City officials were warned that if they were unable to reach their targets, they would be fired. To fulfil their quotas, officials detained the mostly elderly relatives of couples with a second child who were working outside the county, then used their detention as a means to force a return of the couples to their hometowns to undergo sterilisation surgery. By April 12, a total of 1,377 people had been detained in offices under the jurisdiction of Puning city, and half of the targeted 9,559 sterilisation procedures had been carried out.

Typical of such campaigns, local officials set arbitrary targets for compliance, which officials at the grass-roots level are expected to meet. The women and men at the receiving end of the policy are seen as statistics, rather than individuals whose choices should be respected. The very limited safeguards in the national Population and Family Planning Law and provincial regulations are disregarded as officials ensure that targets are met using “local methods” such as detentions, threats, beatings, destruction of homes and the confiscation of property belonging to couples and their families.

Officials are rarely held accountable for abuses committed in the name of the family planning policy. And when victims seek accountability through petitioning or the courts, they are either ignored or face retaliation.

Chen Guangcheng , a blind activist from Linyi city, Shandong , was jailed for four years and three months for campaigning against family planning violence in 2005. Since his release in September last year, the Linyi government has put Chen and his family under illegal house arrest. No officials have been punished for the abuses Chen documented. The implementation of the policy is extremely uneven: it is subject to various local policy directives, as well as being open to interpretation by local officials. For example, if the mother or father refuses to be sterilised, in some cases their child’s hukou (residency) registration may be withheld. At other times, a refusal may be met with threats of violence.

In some parts of the country, parents can pay fines or bribe officials to avoid being sterilised; others are never asked to undergo the procedure. The same applies for the fine, officially called a “social maintenance fee”. Although there are standards for levying the fees, there is considerable room for interpretation, resulting in an uneven and unfair application as well as opportunities for corruption. Members of China’s growing middle class might be able to buy their way out of the policy; rural residents and the poor cannot afford the fine or the bribe.

Changes to the family planning policy are long overdue. While the policy is often credited with drastically reducing China’s population growth, less coercive policies elsewhere have been equally effective without producing either the human rights abuses or the demographic distortions of the one-child policy. The policy has resulted in a significant disproportion between the two sexes as well as a shortage of young workers to support the elderly population.

Piecemeal measures, such as increasing the number of exceptional situations in which couples can have a second child, are inadequate and unfair and will do nothing to curb abuses associated with the policy’s implementation. More fundamental changes are needed immediately – the family planning policy in its present form should be abolished and instead be replaced with one based on choice and high-quality reproductive health care.

Wang Songlian is the research co-ordinator for Chinese Human Rights Defenders, which recently published the report, I don’t have control over my body: Abuses continue in China’s Family Planning Policy

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