Rural working women in China: A short summary of concerns

06 March 2004
Since the term “migrant labour” came into existence in the mid 1980s, when a large proportion of the agricultural population moved from the rural areas to the urban areas to look for jobs in cities, either on a long term basis or on a seasonal basis, much of the burden of agricultural work has been shouldered by those left behind in the rural areas. The current floating population of migrant labour is estimated at 100 million [NOTE 1] some of whom have been in the cities for a long time. Given the total number of the rural population - some 795 million - the number of migrants is over 13 per cent of the total. This is a significant percentage and one large enough to have a dramatic impact on those left behind.

According to some estimates, only one third of migrant labour is female and out of them, only one third is married women. [NOTE 2] In general, rural women’s duration of stay in urban areas is far shorter than that of men (approximately one seventh), which means that they return to rural areas much sooner and remain there longer. [NOTE 3] The single female migrant labour mainly falls into the 16 – 28 age-group, more employable because they are less likely to get pregnant and young enough to do heavy work without much knowledge of legal safeguards against overwork or poor conditions.

Female migrant workers generally are less educated than their male counterparts, but despite this many are better educated than the women who stay behind. Those remaining in the countryside are older, poorly educated, generally married and have childcare duties. Many of their adult male relatives will themselves be either migrants or, if they remain in the rural areas, be elderly or infirm and the women are then most likely to take up agricultural work.

Statistics show that since 1990, women make up more than 50 percent of those employed in agricultural and this ratio is increasing. By 2000, 61.6 percent of agricultural employment is done by women and the estimation for 2003 is 67 per cent, while in many developed countries, the usual rate is 30 per cent. [NOTE 4] For women working in rural areas life is increasingly harsh.

Firstly, agriculture is still largely un-mechanised and ill equipped. Not many farmers can afford a tractor and most of the work has to be done with heavy physical strength; farmers have to dig, pick, sow, weed, harvest and carry everything without mechanized help. In addition, there is little concept or opportunity for rest days in farming – especially in the busy seasons. In slack periods, most female farmers either look for work in other peasants’ field or they work producing native products (for example, drying dates, making salty fish etc), some also undertake piece work contracted out from nearby rural enterprises (sewing, making car seat covers, assembling fireworks etc). Many women whose relatives are migrants have continued doing this extra work to earn cash and at the same time have also picked up the work the male farmers used to do. In their language, they do not call themselves “working”, but “suffering”. [NOTE 5] Many would claim that the work of rural women is extremely tough, even compared with urban working women and they have far fewer rights.

According to a 1990 report from the State Statistics Bureau, 82.6 percent, 71 percent, 79.9 percent and 85 percent of urban women receive some form of pension, medical insurance, sick leave provision and maternity leave respectively, yet only 5.6 percent, 8 percent, 9.2 percent and 12.1 percent of rural women have the same respective benefits. [NOTE 6] While these statistics do not include the huge numbers of women working without contracts or any form of benefits, and do not reflect the common problem of non-payment of such benefits from employers for urban workers, they clearly reveal how far the countryside lags behind in the provision of social security for its poorer residents.

Secondly, in addition to working a seven day week, most are also responsible for the housework. The traditional division of labour remains one where the man works outside the house and the women take care of the household. This idea still serves as a blueprint in the rural areas, except that increasingly the women also have to work outside the home for their livelihood too. Research has found that the time spent on housework by rural women is 2.32 times that of rural men. If the time spent on housework is included in the total number of hours worked (both in the fields and at home), women are found to work 1.13 times more than men. [NOTE 7]

Thirdly, despite the obvious financial and unpaid contributions to a family’s livelihood, rural women remain in a subservient position. Long hours of housework and childcare are not considered as work, rather as natural women’s duties and therefore are often not appreciated nor recognized. It is common practice that the bride moves to the groom’s village and stay there. She is sometimes poorly treated by in-laws who see her simply as another farm hand. In times of conflict, complaints to her new family go unsupported by her own family and friends. In the event of family or marital disputes or a divorce, the female farmer is often placed in a very difficult situation. The land, house and other property is generally under the husband or his clan’s name. In many cases, if such a divorce case comes to court, the official settlement does not recognize the unpaid work of the women and any claims to property or divisions of income fail. For some rural women, fear of such an event and a desire to survive makes them remain in unhappy marriages or in families where they work in servitude.

Fourthly, gender inequality more generally, is pervasive in rural areas and makes women even more vulnerable. In communities where farmers have developed small market gardens or sell their produce at a local market, it is the men that have control of the enterprise, while the women generally undertakes the more laborious and unprofitable work, such as growing food crops. In rural areas, when non-agricultural job opportunities come up, such as in local township enterprises, priority for employment is given to the male farmers. This favouritism is due in part to women’s lower educational status, but also to a general belief that women are - and should be - more occupied with caring for the family, and that women are less able than men. Many rural women do not question this, for they have been taught to let the men have better opportunities - in schooling, in work and in property rights. Indeed for many migrant female workers, one motive for working far away from home is to earn money to support any male siblings who are staying in the countryside and to help build a house for them. They themselves do not receive such material benefits from their or others’ remittances because, once they are married, they are commonly considered as “water thrown out” and have little connection with their own families.

As a result of rural the increasing rural hardship, which includes heavy taxation and local corruption, rural residents in China, are on average three times more likely to commit suicide than urban residents. Within this figure however, the effects of discrimination and the unequal burden of work (both paid and unpaid) are revealed in the fact that the suicide rate for rural women however is 25 percent higher than men. China is the only country in the world, which has a higher suicide rate for women than men, and the female suicide rate in rural areas is one of the highest in the world. [NOTE 8] These statistics are a result of their low social status, heavy workload and the fact that for most women there are few avenues for self-development, employment or advancement.


[NOTE 1]Tamara Jacka & Josko Petkovic, Ethnography and Video: Researching Women in China's Floating Population,

[NOTE 2]Tan Shen, Communication within Female Labors: Letters found after the Zhili Factory Fire (Chinese Edition),

[NOTE 3]Li Shi, Rural Women’s Employment and Income: Analysis of Villages in Shanxi Province, (Chinese Edition),

[NOTE 4]Liu Xin, Rural Sisters Suffering in China (Chinese Edition),

[NOTE 5]ibid

[NOTE 6]Tao Chunfang, Social Status of Chinese Women (Chinese Edition), China: China Women’s Publications, 1993, p.440.

[NOTE 7]Tan Shen, Communication within Female Labors: Letters found after the Zhili Factory Fire (Chinese Edition),

[NOTE 8]People’s Daily, 9 September 2003.

8 March 2004

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