Struggling against sexist notions, married women try to hold on to their land rights
By day, 35-year-old Long Yuting is a stay-at-home mother for her two children. But after they fall asleep at night, she becomes a legal expert—reading law books and writing civil complaints to get back her dividends, farmland, and other benefits that her village committee has denied her for almost 10 years, ever since they heard she’d gotten married.
Born in a village in Zhaoqing in the southeastern Guangdong province in 1987, Long, like all her neighbors, had been entitled to a piece of the village’s farmland and had paid agricultural tax on it every year. In 1996, the village collective transformed the lands into fishponds operated by a third party, which yield an annual dividend of around 700 yuan per villager (now increased to 6,500 yuan), which Long had been collecting alongside her parents and brothers.
In 2011, Long married a man from another village. When she divorced him two years later, cadres from her own village belatedly became aware of the marriage and decided to strip her of benefits from the village collective. They even reclaimed some dividends they had already paid in the previous two years to rectify their “mistake”—because a married woman, they argue, is not entitled to any further benefits from her birth village.
But this is simply not true under Chinese law—Long had become one of the millions of so-called chujianü (出嫁女, “married-out women”) in rural China who’ve lost their legal rights from their village after marriage, and one of hundreds of thousands to have taken legal action, sometimes for years, to get back what they are owed. Yet conservative notions, combined with the increasing value of land and a lack of clear rules for enforcing land rights in rural areas, often bring their fights to a dead end.
In the early 1980s, China enacted reforms to replace collective farming. Land was still collectively owned by residents who held a household registration (hukou) in the village, but they were given some autonomy over how to use the plots allocated to them according to the size of the household. Today, the rural collective holds assemblies to decide matters regarding land allocation and land-use, and the collective can contract their land to outsiders with agreement from two-thirds of the members.
Legally, a woman with a hukou in the village is automatically a member of the collective and entitled to the same rights as any other villager. However, traditional notions such as “marrying out a daughter is like tossing out a basin of water” hold strong in parts of Chinese society, especially in rural areas. It is widely believed that a woman belongs to her husband’s family after marriage. Regardless of the law, many village collectives consider “married-out women” like Long to have severed ties with their birth village. In many cases, their farmland and residential plots, and other benefits such as rural cooperative medical insurance and voting rights, will be taken back by the village.
SOME PARTS OF THE COUNTRY WITH THE MOST NUMEROUS AND FIERCEST LAND DISPUTES INVOLVING MARRIED WOMEN ARE ALSO SOME OF THE MOST ECONOMICALLY DEVELOPED, WITH THE MOST VALUABLE LAND.
In recent decades, as China’s economy develops, conflicts over married women’s land rights have intensified. With more and more land being converted by village collectives for business development, or requisitioned by the state for infrastructure and urbanization, questions of who is entitled to get dividends or compensation for the value of the land can spill over into fierce conflicts. A 2014 survey by the All-China Women’s Federation noted an increase of 21 percent in cases of infringement on women’s land rights from 2000 to 2010, with 70 percent of such cases involving married women. Since 2004, Qianqian Law Firm, a Beijing organization that often represents underprivileged women pro bono, has taken part in more than 3,000 disputes involving a total of over 100,000 married women and their children against rural cooperatives.
When a member of the collective loses their rights, their land and dividends can be redistributed among the rest of the villagers. This, in addition to conservative notions, gives villages a huge material incentive to take away land from women who “married out,” and for other villagers to side with the collective in land disputes. Some parts of the country with the most numerous and fiercest land disputes involving married women are also some of the most economically developed, with the most valuable land—a source from Huizhou, the fifth-ranking city in Guangdong province by GDP, tells TWOC that his family is owed 1 million yuan by his mother’s village collective, but they would rather spend 300,000 yuan fighting the family in lawsuits rather than give back the land.
Ever since her dividends were repossessed by village cadres, Long has tried to petition higher-level government departments to help her get back her and her parents’ dividends. “Why should a woman lose everything just because she is married?” she asks TWOC, repeating the question that has kept her going all these years. “I still live in the village with my family and parents.”
The decision is usually kicked back to the village, with officials citing villages’ right to autonomously distribute land-use rights and make other day-to-day decisions on governance. Sometimes, higher authorities are reluctant to help due to sharing the same attitudes toward chujianü. Long recalls that once an official inquired, “Why didn’t you just follow the man you marry?” and suggested that she transfer her hukou to her husband’s village to gain benefits there.
Long says she felt disrespected. “It is like [women] don’t have autonomy to make our own decisions,” she says, adding that she does not want to transfer her hukou because she still lives and works in Zhaoqing, and has ever since she graduated from college.
Lin Lixia, a project manager at Qianqian Law Firm who has been working on cases involving women’s land rights for the past two decades, tells TWOC that the traditional expectation that a married woman should move her household registration and draw benefits from her husband’s village contravenes China’s Marriage Law, which guarantees women the right to choose their own place of residence after marriage. But in practice, she has observed that even local officials at higher levels of government might hold similarly conservative views to the village committee, making them dismissive of married women’s petitions and reluctant to intervene.
Like Long, Ma Minjing from another village in Zhaoqing, now 51 years old, tells TWOC that she has been trapped in a relentless back-and-forth process with the village collective, township, and district government departments for over two years over her rural collective membership and dividend rights. Ma married a man in Guangzhou in 1997 and did not move her hukou, as an urban household registration in her husband’s city was too difficult to obtain.
Having already lost her farmland, dividends, and medical insurance due to her marriage, Ma was left with almost nothing at all after she divorced her husband in 2005. Since then, she has petitioned for the rural collective to return her plot so she could farm for a living, but has been rejected. It was not until her village reformed its rural collective system in 2019, formalizing the process by which a villager could apply for membership in the collective via what is called a “share certificate,” that Ma decided to take a step forward: requesting higher levels of government to intervene.
EVEN LOCAL OFFICIALS AT HIGHER LEVELS MIGHT HOLD CONSERVATIVE VIEWS, MAKING THEM DISMISSIVE OF MARRIED WOMEN’S PETITIONS AND RELUCTANT TO INTERVENE.
The township government held a hearing for Ma, at which they turned down her request, saying the villagers had autonomy to decide their own land allocations. Ma then appealed to the district government, which ordered the township government to reconsider their decision. This process was repeated three times before the township government eventually agreed to confirm Ma’s membership of her village collective. “It feels like I am always going around in circles and I never make any progress beyond the village and township level,” she says, “I have so little power in this.”
More than 1,100 kilometers away, in Xiangyang, Hubei province, 42-year-old Zhang Zhi’ai has been facing a similar buck-passing process since she started to petition for her land expropriation compensation. In 2018, the local government announced it would reappropriate the lands in Zhang’s village to build roads. The village committee decided to exclude all chujianü from receiving compensation, including Zhang, who got married in 2015. Zhang estimates she will lose around 100,000 yuan in compensation under the arrangement.
Since then, Zhang has called on the district, municipal, and provincial Women’s Federation and government departments to help, but all cited the village’s right to autonomous governance as the reason why they couldn’t intervene, and advised her to take her case to court. When she did so, the court first dismissed her case then ruled against her, stating she is not qualified to get compensation as she does not rely on the farmland for her livelihood, having moved away to the city to find work like many young people in China’s rural areas today.
Zhang calls the decision “absurd” and discriminatory against women: “Ninety percent of the young men in our village do not live on farmland today, either,” she claims. “Even the village head himself doesn’t farm anymore. Why should they get compensation?”
Numbers collected by Qianqian Law Firm show that the chances of a chujianü winning a lawsuit to regain her rights are fairly low. Among the 221 suits involving the land-use and other rights of married women that the firm took on in 2018, nearly 50 percent of them were dismissed, while the court ruled against the plaintiffs in 40 percent of cases.
In Zhang’s case, as in many others, the lawsuit was dismissed because the plaintiff usually has to prove their membership in the rural collective. Currently, there are no clear legal criteria for membership. Even when a “married-out” woman successfully proves her membership, like Long finally did in 2015, the village might still refuse to pay dividends. Long has had to file a lawsuit every time the village makes a dividend allocation—so far, she has filed five lawsuits for herself and her parents, a process that takes about six months every time.
Apart from administrative and legal hurdles, many women fighting for their land rights also encounter hostility from their fellow villagers. Long tells TWOC that ever since she started to argue for her dividends, she has been ostracized by the entire village, receiving dirty looks from her neighbors and accusations that she is a “beggar” or “grubbing for money.” She alleges that when the village underwent property rights reform in 2019, the village committee seized her parents and brother’s share certificates to punish her.
Ma says that her neighbors cold-shouldered her at a village assembly, and they’ve directed a loudspeaker at her door to play messages to harass her. After the township government affirmed her membership in the village collective in September, the village committee filed a counter-suit to overturn the decision. “They said they would fight me till the very end with the strength of the entire village,” Ma recalls. Even her parents and siblings condemned her for harming their reputation, and have stopped seeing her. “I ended up being a loner, isolated and forsaken by everyone,” Ma says.
Despite these difficulties, the issue of married women’s rights has gained widespread public sympathy, leading to some positive changes. On October 30, China’s top legislature passed a revision of the women’s protection law with new provisions on rural women’s property rights, such as stating that courts are obligated to accept lawsuits filed by women who find their property rights infringed. A new law regulating rural economic collectives is also currently being drafted, which Lin says might provide clear, nation-wide rules on defining membership in the collective, and could provide local governments and courts with sufficient legal grounds to deal with the cases involving the rights of married women.
Some local governments and courts are also adopting more active measures. For example, the Panyu district government and court in Guangzhou have imposed measures such as fines, detention, and credit blacklists for village heads to force them to distribute dividends to chujianü and their children.
Long, Ma, and Zhang are also continuing to fight, though many other married women they know have given up due to the expensive, time-consuming legal actions, and the slim chances of success. Long tells TWOC that she has only managed to win back 38,000 yuan in total after all these years, despite all her effort and mental stress. But for her, these actions are more about winning equity than getting material compensation.
“These are the legal rights that I am supposed to have,” she says. “Why would I give them up?”
For Land’s Sake: The Women Fighting to Keep Hold of Their Rural Land is a story from our issue, “Promised Land.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.