A divorce court in China has ordered a man to pay his ex-wife $7,700 in compensation for unpaid domestic work and child care during the couple’s five years of marriage.
The first-of-its-kind ruling has sparked debate in China about the value of labor in the home — which worldwide disproportionately falls on women, a dynamic that studies show has been worsened by the economic and social upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the ruling issued Monday, Beijing’s Fangshan District Court ordered the man, identified by his last name, Chen, to pay his ex-wife, identified as Wang, a monthly alimony of 2,000 yuan ($300) in addition to a one-time payment of 50,000 yuan ($7,700) for having born the brunt of housework and child rearing during their marriage, the BBC reported.
The settlement relied on a new civil code that China introduced last year that permits a divorcing spouse to seek back pay if they had been the primary one responsible for child raising or other domestic labor, such as assisting in their partner’s work or taking care of elderly relatives. Before this legal change, an ex-spouse could only file for compensation if this agreement was laid out in a prenuptial contract, which rarely occurred, according to the BBC.
In setting the amount for the one-time payment, the judge told reporters Monday, he considered that while typically a divorcing couple must split their shared tangible property, “housework constitutes intangible property value,” the BBC reported.
The organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that women in China spend an average of 2.5 more hours a day on unpaid work compared to men, which is higher than the OCED average of twice the time.
The landmark decision has garnered praise but also criticism in China, the latter in part from people who say that the judge perpetuated the devaluating of domestic labor in his calculation: the equivalent of $1,540 a year.
As of Monday, topics related to the ruling have been viewed over 400 million times on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, according to the South China Morning Post.
“It’s only right that the money should be given, but 50,000 yuan is too little. If you go out and work for half a year you’d earn more than that,” one Weibo user wrote, SCMP reported.
Still, others said the compensation for unpaid domestic work was unnecessary. The woman “also enjoyed the fruits of her housework,” another user wrote, according to SCMP.
It remains unclear how widespread these kinds of cases may become. But divorce filings have spiked in some Chinese communities over the last year, which experts attribute to COVID-19 and the pressure on relationships brought on by prolonged lockdowns and economic disruption.
In another indicator of matrimonial discontent, China’s Ministry of Public Security earlier this month published figures showing that birthrates in the country dropped by 15 percent compared to the year before.