By Xuyang Jingjin
An old Chinese saying goes, “A married daughter is like spilt water,” an indication that the traditional preference for sons is still prevalent in China.
Despite gender equality being a State policy, this discrimination against women is evident in rural areas, where a daughter who is married is no longer considered a member of the village, and is therefore no longer entitled to any land. As local governments sell off their land, these women are also excluded from any of the profits, a problem that has been escalating in recent years.
Su Xiulan, 49, is a typical example of how such discrimination can throw someone’s life into turmoil. Su has lived in the same village in Xining, Qinghai Province, all her life. In 1982, like the other villagers, she was allocated a small patch of land where she grew vegetables.
After the land reform of the 1980s, collectively-owned land was contracted out to households, who had the right to use the land for 30 years.
Su got married in 1992. Her husband was from the city. As China’s household registration system divides people into rural and urban identities, it is difficult for people from rural areas to gain urban residential status or enjoy the same rights as urban residents.
Therefore, Su, like the 100 or so other women in the village, continued to live in her village after she was married and continued to farm on the land that she was allocated.
In 2006, the local government decided to acquire most of the land in the village to build residential compounds. The next year, the village committee gave each male villager 64,000 yuan ($10,572) in compensation. Married women got nothing.
“When we went to the village Party secretary, he told us that because we were married, we were not entitled to the compensation,” said Su.
At this time, Su was also extremely unhappy in her marriage. Her husband would sometimes kick her out when he was drunk and often complained that she didn’t get any money from the land, said Su.
She and several other women protested to all levels of the government. She went to Beijing to petition on several occasions, but nothing was resolved. She tried suing local authorities, but the local courts refused to accept the cases. Her land was taken to build residential buildings, which now sell at 8,000 yuan per square meter. While the men in the village now own at least one apartment, Su didn’t receive any compensation, and lost her livelihood.
There are women all over the country in the same situation as Su. Most, if not all, villages in China consider that a woman is no longer a villager once she is married and will take away her land, no matter where she chooses to live. This traditional view and the preference for sons feed off each other: a son means land and profits, while a daughter means you get nothing.
If a man gets married and moves to his wife’s village, his land in his birth village still belongs to him. But in his wife’s village, the whole family will get nothing because the wife, the “married daughter”, is no longer seen as a member of the village.
“It’s prevalent all over the country. People believe that a woman should move to live with her husband and is not entitled to any benefits in her birth village,” said Lin Lixia, secretary general of Women’s Watch China, at the Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center.
“The reasoning is that we only have this much land, and the men in the village will marry and we need to take back the land to give to the newcomers,” she explained.
But in practice, a married woman isn’t necessarily given any land in her husband’s village either because the village might not be allocating land at the time, said Lin.
The same goes for a woman who is divorced or widowed. No longer entitled to anything in her former or deceased husband’s village, she will be left with nothing on either end.
According to a report released by the Cultural Development Center for Rural Women in 2011, about 30 percent of the housekeepers working in Beijing were divorced. As is often the case, these women had lost their land both in their birth village and their husbands’ village and had to go to work in the cities.
In the last decade, as local governments began to see the huge profits that could be made from selling land, the problem has become more prominent. And disputes are more serious in richer areas than in poor ones, said Lin.
There are no legal grounds for the discriminatory treatment of women in allocating land or profits from their sales. Several laws, including the marriage law, law on protection of women’s rights, and land contract law, stipulate that women’s rights to land and its related benefits should be protected.
In a village in Leqing, Zhejiang Province, for instance, married women were given a ballot and asked to vote during a recent village election. Even though they live there, work there and had the right to vote, they were still excluded from the profits of the collective economy.
Putting aside issues of gender inequality, the way in which such regulations are made is also questionable. Often, the village head will say the decision is the wish of the village representatives. But Lin said she has seen cases where the village head told the representatives, “Those opposed to giving women land stand over here and will be given 5 yuan each, those who support the women just go stand over there and get nothing.”
The law also stipulates that higher level government and township governments should supervise local village regulations and correct them when they violate higher-level laws, but this is rarely the case in practice.
Lin said their center has been trying to change the situation by working with local governments and village officials to convince villages to change the regulations. They have held training sessions with local officials and in some villages were able to revise the self-governance regulations to ensure equal rights for women.
As with many other social issues, the problem isn’t the lack of legislation, but rather the lack of enforcement.
In the decade between 2004 and June 2013, the legal counseling center Lin works at received about 500 cases concerning women’s rights to land, involving over 30,000 people. Of the 124 cases that the center actually took on, over 75 percent were rejected by the courts. They lost 20 of the 31 cases that went to trial.
Even with the cases that they won, enforcing the decision is another issue, as many village officials simply refuse to comply with the rulings.
In some cases, the courts may come under pressure from local governments not to take the cases. The courts are also concerned that accepting one case will open the floodgates for others.
“The primary concern of local authorities is maintaining stability. They are afraid that if they accept the lawsuits, more lawsuits will come,” said Lin.
Lin’s center was able to persuade some local judicial bodies to issue instructions to allow local courts to accept lawsuits concerning women’s rights to land or related profits.
For instance, after the intermediate court in Xingtai, Hebei Province issued a guideline on handling such cases in 2010, the number of cases and petitions decreased, as local governments realized the women could file lawsuits against them and actually win, said Lin.
Putting their grievances through the judicial system is one measure they have been trying in recent years, said Lin. It’s not easy, as some courts are especially cautious in accepting class action lawsuits.
Lawyers from the center represented over 80 women in a village in Leqing, Zhejiang Province last year. The women have been complaining, protesting and petitioning since 1993. Even though the suits were eventually accepted by the court, they had to be tried separately. In the end, only 16 won their cases.
“A lot depends on the officials. If the officials are capable and willing to change the situation, it will work, otherwise it’s very difficult,” said Lin.
Because of her repeated petitioning, Su from Qinghai was detained more than once. She was sent to reeducation through labor camps for two years and was just released in May. She said her health deteriorated while in the labor camp and that she suffered several heart attacks.
Her niece took her in and let her live in the small kitchen. The only work Su could find was cleaning people’s houses. Several other women from the village are in a similar situation as Su, renting tiny apartments and working as housekeepers.
With nothing to live on and nothing to lose, Su said she will go on fighting. Her younger sister was also married and therefore denied rights to land compensation. But she decided not to pursue the case, as Su’s experience scared her.
“I just feel it’s unfair. Why do the men get the compensation and the houses, but we women don’t? Aren’t we supposed to be equal?” said Su.