Woman wins landmark case for the rights of single mothers and their children

Marckx v. Belgium  | 1979

Woman wins landmark case for the rights of single mothers and their children

I had a daughter who was a few months old and I was told that she had no rights.

Paula Marckx, in a video interview from the Belgian government  - © Photo Council of Europe



Paula Marckx blessed her luck when she discovered she would become a mother at the age of forty-seven. However, a few months after her baby Alexandra was born, Paula discovered that – legally speaking – she was not [yet] the girl’s mother.

That was because Paula was single. A letter from the authorities said that, because the baby was born outside of marriage, it was not automatically recognised as being Paula’s. To obtain some kind of recognition, she had to go through a legal process.

Paula was insulted that she did not automatically qualify as a mother just because she was a single woman. Worse, she discovered that even after going through this legal process, her baby would not have the same status as if she had been married. In particular, Alexandra would not stand to inherit from Paula when she died.

When she complained to an official, Paula was told that: “Women always protest but are never prepared to take action.”

Paula decided to take action. She brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The court ruled that Belgian law had failed to properly respect the ties between Paula and her daughter. This had violated the right to family life of both Paula and Alexandra. 

I thought I was going to get a note back to say that my child would be mine, but not that the impact would be so great.

Paula Marckx, in interview with Zwijgen is Geen Optie


Belgian law was changed to establish equal inheritance rights for the children of unmarried parents. In 1987, the Civil Code was also amended to automatically recognise the legal bond between an unmarried mother and her child from birth.

Libelle magazine named Paula Marckx Belgium’s Woman of the Year for 1980.