Agenda 2030 and China’s Two-Child Policy

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer  

(Photo Credit)


The main theme of the sixtieth session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which took place in New York at the end of last March, was women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development.

Global leaders, NGOs, private sector representatives and prominent human rights activists gathered at the UN headquarters to discuss how to best ensure that women and girls are at the forefront of their plans to implement the new 15-year global development agenda, and how to pave the way for achieving sustainability in the form of inter-generational equity which encapsulates the needs of both men and women.

The strong correlation between women’s empowerment and gender equality, on the one hand, and sustainability, on the other, is obvious. However, it is important for these concepts and their inextricability not to be wrongfully interpreted by allowing states to disguise policies and practices, which clearly undermine women’s rights, as necessary steps for the implementation of the post-2015 development agenda.

Many such attempts have been previously made by governments at high profile UN events and summits. Perhaps the most notorious example is the 2009 UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen where the former Vice Minister of China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, Zhao Baige, argued that the country’s coercive population control policy (the One Child Policy) was not only demographically justified, but also environmentally desirable as it set an example for other countries on how to drastically reduce carbon emissions and help slow down global warming.

‘The policy on family planning proves to be a great success. It not only contributes to reduction of global emission, but also provides experiences for other countries, developing countries in particular, in their pursuit for a coordinated and sustainable development,’ claimed Zhao, thus essentially describing human beings as walking carbon footprints.
What the Chinese government officials failed to mention in Copenhagen, however, was that this ‘successful’ response to climate change they were so proud of came as a result of the prevention of millions of lives through forced abortion and involuntary sterilisation. 

While in no way trying to downplay the importance of finding effective means of combating climate change, the elimination of 400 million lives (more than the entire population of the United States and Canada combined) under the coercive One Child Policy is certainly not the way the international community should be aiming to address global warming and ensure environmental sustainability.

The problem with the One Child Policy was not the number of children ‘allowed’. Rather, it was the fact that the government was telling women how many children they could have and then enforced that limit through forced abortion and forced sterilisation. Statistics indicate that during this government-imposed limit of one child per family, around 13 million abortions a year were registered in China. This figure works out to more than 35,000 abortions each day, or more than 1,450 per hour. 

Things took a shift in October 2015 when the Communist Party of China officially stated that the existing law will be replaced by a Two-Child Policy as of 1 January 2016 in order to address the gender imbalance in the country and the rapidly aging population. Nonetheless, the overall situation has not significantly changed even after families were legally allowed to have two children under the new ‘more favourable’ population control policy.

There is absolutely no guarantee that the Communist Party will abandon the inhumane methods of enforcement it previously used with its One Child Policy. Women will still have to obtain a government-issued birth permit, for the first and second child, or else they will risk being subjected to forced abortion.

‘It will still be illegal for an unmarried woman to have a child. Regardless of the number of children allowed, women who get pregnant without permission will still be dragged out of their homes, strapped down to tables, and forced to abort babies that they want’, argues Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.

Abandoning the old regime and adopting the 2016 Two-Child Policy will not change the fact that coercion is invariably at the core of all family-planning legislation in China and will not end any of the human rights abuses caused by the One Child Policy, in particular sex-selective abortion of baby girls or the so called gendercide.

Because of the traditional preference for boys in a country shaped by patriarchal norms and the availability of ultra-sound technology, most of the aborted babies in China are girls. All too often, women in these cultures do not ‘select’ their daughters for abortion but are forced into it. ‘Crushing social, economic, political and personal pressures in cultures with a strong son preference trample women pregnant with girls’, continues Littlejohn

After all, it seems that China will be able to grow rich before it grows old thanks to the new Two-Child Policy which will slowly stabilise the situation with the aging of its workforce population and will prevent the self-inflicted demographic disaster the country was headed towards with its One Child Policy.

However, many questions remain as to the moral legitimacy of such a policy and its compatibility with the goals set by Agenda 2030. How are we to ever turn into a reality the commitments of positioning gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment at the centre of the global agenda when one fourth of the world’s women still do not have a saying in how many children they could have and continue being exposed to a risk of intrusive forms of contraception and coerced abortions?  The search for an answer continues