A court in China has ordered a man to pay thousands of dollars in compensation to his former wife for housework she shouldered during their five-year marriage, in a landmark divorce ruling that has sparked discussion in the country over the value of unpaid domestic duties.
Wang, a homemaker, demanded restitution equivalent to $24,700 from her husband after he filed for divorce at a district court in Beijing in October. Wang said she was left to take care of the couple’s child and housework alone, as her husband “barely cared about or participated in any kind of domestic chores,” the state-run China National Radio (CNR) reported.
In its ruling, the court ordered the husband to pay Wang around $7,700 as “housework compensation,” after splitting their joint property equally. Wang was also awarded custody of their son and $300 per month in alimony, according to CNR.
The ruling is the first of its kind under China’s new civil code, a wide-ranging legislative package that the Chinese government and legal experts say will better protect the rights of individuals. In effect since January, it includes a clause enabling a spouse to seek compensation from their partner during divorce for taking more responsibility in caring for children and elderly relatives.
The ruling, which was first reported by local media in early February, became a trending topic on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, this week after a hashtag was created to draw attention to the court’s decision. As of Wednesday, the hashtag has been viewed more than 500 million times. While some comments applauded the ruling as a recognition of the hard, unpaid labor at home, others said the amount awarded was too little to cover five years of housework and childcare.
Unequal gender roles in domestic life have been a topic of public debate in China in recent years amid a rising feminist movement. Despite increasing education levels and women’s growing economic status, gender norms and patriarchal traditions have not caught up with these changes, and women are still expected to carry out most of the childcare and housework after marriage.
China’s divorce laws
Housework compensation is designed to offer additional protection to spouses who have undertaken more domestic chores – and sacrificed opportunities to advance their career or education, according to legal experts.
“For the spouse who works outside, after divorce they can still enjoy the resources, connections and status they’ve had – and still earn the same level of income. But for the spouse who has been paying efforts quietly at home, they will have to face the problem of returning to (work),” Long Jun, an associate law professor at Tsinghua University, told state-broadcaster CCTV.
“This means that the homemaker has to pay a hidden cost in addition to the efforts they paid during the marriage,” Long said.
The right to seek housework compensation in divorce proceedings is not a new concept in Chinese law. In 2001, housework compensation was added to a revision of China’s marriage law with the precondition that it only applied to couples who agreed to separation of property, in which each spouse retains exclusive ownership of property acquired during the marriage.
In reality, however, legal experts say few Chinese couples have reached formal agreement to keep their property separate, so it’s rare for divorcing spouses to qualify for court-approved housework compensation.
“According to our survey, only 3% to 5% of couples in our country implement the separation of property,” Xia Yinlan, a professor specializing in marriage law at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, told CCTV. That’s why the precondition was scrapped in China’s new civil code, Xia said.
Falling marriage, rising divorce
On Weibo, many users expressed disappointment that Wang was only awarded $7,700, after she dedicated five years of her life to taking care of her family, especially in the Chinese capital – where the cost of living and income levels are among the highest in the country.
“I’m a bit speechless. I feel that the job of a full-time housewife has been underestimated. In Beijing, hiring a nanny would cost more than 50,000 yuan per year,” said a top comment under CNR’s report.
“This is why young people are not willing to get married and have children. The cost is too high,” said another.
China’s marriage rate has been plunging since 2013. And in just six years, the number of Chinese people getting married for the first time has fallen by 41%, according to data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics.
Divorce rates, meanwhile, have climbed nearly five times in the past three decades. According to government statistics, there were 0.69 divorces per thousand people in 1990. By 2019, the latest figures available, that number stood at 3.36.
Feng Miao, the judge who presided over the Beijing court case, told CNR that the amount of compensation in this ruling was decided based on factors including the husband’s income levels and the cost of living in the Chinese capital.
Now that the new civil code is in force, the judge said she expected more cases involving demands for housework compensation to be filed. “But in practice, we still need to accumulate experience in how to meter out the amount of compensation,” she said.