Women's Land Rights in Rural China: Transforming Existing Laws into a Source of Property Rights

Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal, Vol. 17 Issue 1 pp.237

April 2008

By H. Ray Liaw

In the aftermath of legal reforms designed to secure land tenure for farmers, women in rural China lost rights to land at marriage, divorce, and widowhood. Despite a central legal framework that facially protects women’s property interests, ambiguity in the property and marriage laws have allowed village leaders to reassert traditional social norms and deny constitutional equal rights guarantees for women. Recent attempts to ameliorate landlessness for women, specifically in the Rural Contract Law and the Property Law, offer little promise of providing a significant solution for rural women. New proposals to mitigate rural women’s loss of land rights must be framed in the cultural context of how social relations affect land rights. Legal reforms in rural China should focus on strengthening women’s property rights within marriage, as well as securing external rights to property. Women’s land tenure would be better protected under a more clearly defined community property regime that recognizes rural land contracts issued both prior to and during marriage as jointly possessed. Such measures would give women access to a legal platform at divorce or widowhood, when they are most likely to experience landlessness.

Prior to land reform policies instituted in China during the late 1990s, rural women like Hou Cunli did not anticipate losing land rights upon marriage.1  After moving to her husband’s village at marriage, Hou’s natal village redistributed her share of land among other villagers.2 Hou’s recourse was likely a seemingly endless waiting list for a land share in her new residence.3 Village governments told other women like Zhu Daiyin that land was not given to daughters at all, as they would inevitably marry off to other villages.

These stories are not unique. During the first half of 1999 alone, over 2000 rural women in twenty-two provinces reported loss of land5 to the All-China Women’s Federation.6  Complaints primarily concerned village governments’ refusal to allocate land to women upon marriage into a new village and deprivation of any land upon divorce or widowing.7

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The above is an introductory excerpt from an article that was originally published in 17 Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal 237 (2008). Read the full article here.