Chinese divorce court orders husband to pay wife for years of housework in first ruling of its kind

Phoebe Zhang
·4-min read

A Chinese divorce court has ordered a husband to pay his wife for the housework she carried out during their five-year marriage in the first ruling of its kind following the introduction of a new marriage law in China.

The legal judgment has sparked heated debate about putting a monetary value on unpaid work – still mostly done by women – at home, with the topic viewed by 400 million times as of Monday on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service.

According to court records, the woman, surnamed Wang, met her husband, surnamed Chen, in 2010. They married in 2015 but started living apart in 2018, with their son living with his mother.

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In 2020, Chen filed for divorce at the Fangshan District People’s Court in Beijing. His wife was initially reluctant to agree to a divorce, but later requested a division of property, and financial compensation as Chen had not taken part in housework or childcare responsibilities. She also accused Chen of having an affair.

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In granting the divorce, the court awarded Wang their son’s custody and ruled that Chen should pay Wang alimony of 2,000 yuan (US$300) per month and compensate his former wife with a one-off 50,000 yuan (US$7,700) payment for housework she had done over a five-year period.

“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 internet user wrote. However, another commented: “Why is it compared with housekeeping? This lady herself also enjoyed the fruits of her housework.”

According to surveys carried out by United Nations Women, women still carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men. Photo: Getty Images
According to surveys carried out by United Nations Women, women still carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men. Photo: Getty Images

Zhong Wen, a divorce lawyer based in China’s Sichuan province, said that the ruling was based on China’s new marriage law, which came into effect on January 1.

“There’s a clause that says the party who takes on more work raising children, taking care of the elderly and assisting their spouses’ work is entitled to ask for compensation during divorce,” he said. “The two parties should negotiate measures, and if negotiations fail, the court should rule.”

Zhong said he believed the ruling was beneficial for social and legal reasons as it recognised the value of domestic work.

“Those who do housework are devalued in a marriage, with the most obvious effect being their survival skills in society and their professional skills will probably decrease,” he said.

This [case] cautions us to never be housewives. You will fall behind society, have no professional path, and your work is deemed meaningless because it doesn’t have monetary value

Comment posted on Weibo on the divorce case

But the lawyer believed the compensation awarded in this case was too low.

In Britain, when dividing property in a divorce lawsuit, the court takes into consideration contributions from both parties to their family, including housework or caring for the family, and that is more than mere “financial compensation” to one party, he added.

The case feeds into a larger debate in China about the role of housewives alongside the country’s rising feminist movement. According to surveys carried out by United Nations Women, the UN entity dedicated to gender equality, women still carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men.



“This [case] cautions us to never be housewives,” one internet user wrote on Weibo. “You will fall behind society, have no professional path, and your work is deemed meaningless because it doesn’t have monetary value. And worst of all, you will only depend on your husband.”

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In October, Zhang Guimei, the founder and principal of China’s first publicly funded girls’ high school, ignited public debate about a woman’s choice to be a stay-at-home housewife when she criticised them for their lack of independence and reliance on husbands. She said she was not in favour of her students becoming housewives.

Zhang has been praised by Chinese state media in the past as an educator well-known for her contribution to changing women’s livelihoods in one of the poorest regions in China.

The High School for Girls in Lijiang’s Huaping county in Yunnan province was founded in 2008, paving the way for 1,800 girls from impoverished families to lead professional lives – by preparing them for university – that would otherwise be unobtainable.

One comment called Zhang’s speech disrespectful towards women and antifeminist, while others argued that her speech should be taken in context of the work she was doing in elevating women from poverty.

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