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Library Men first: inheritance rights and women in rural China

Men first: inheritance rights and women in rural China

Men first: inheritance rights and women in rural China

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Date of publication
February 2005
Resource Language
ISBN / Resource ID

For women in rural China, inheritance rights are often limited by traditional customs which give greater benefits to men. Although this is being challenged by new laws that recognise women’s legal rights, increased access for women to jobs and education, there is a big gap between legislation and reality.Research from
University College Chester analyses the transfer of resources between
generations within households and village communities in rural China, with
particular reference to Dongdatun, a village in the
north. Women’s access to family resources is limited by patriarchal inheritance
systems, which favour male family members.
In Dongdatun,
as in many villages, recent years have seen a marked diversification of rural
livelihoods, a rapid growth of rural industry and a diversification of
ownership structures. However, changing economic conditions caused by the ending
of rural communes has reduced rural people’s security. In the absence of state
or collectively financed social security, needs that are met by social welfare
services in China’s cities are still perceived as the responsibility of
individuals in rural areas.
In rural
societies, the focus of women’s lives is their husbands’ families, due to the
persistence of ‘patrilocal marriage’, in which a
woman moves into her husband’s village at marriage. Daughters leave their natal
(birth) families, but sons stay put. This means rural people continue to rely
on sons for security and support in ill health or retirement.
Evidence from
interviews with village women showed that:

Most women do not have the
same inheritance rights as their brothers nor do they try to claim them.
Many women still believe
that a ‘virtuous woman’ should not assert her own interests in the home
and should avoid household disputes through tolerance and unselfishness.
Traditional beliefs are so
strongly held that many women also have negative attitudes towards
daughters’ inheritance rights.

situation appears to be changing, however. Improved opportunities for women to
have paid jobs, education and training have increased their confidence and
bargaining power in the transfer and redistribution of resources within the
household. Young village women defend the legitimacy of ‘uxorilocal’
marriage, in which the husband lives with his wife’s family. More married
daughters now stay on in their natal households. The question of rural women’s
inheritance rights – particularly married women’s’ inheritance to parental estates
and remarried widows’ inheritance rights in their previous married families –
is now discussed more openly.
A lack of
similar legal mechanisms for old-age security, combined with the persistence of
patrilocal marriage, has reinforced the tradition of passing resources onto
sons, the denial of daughters’ inheritance rights and the need for families to
provide security for the elderly. However, the traditional security of extended
and close family structures is now under threat from rural industrialisation,
population mobility and family planning laws.
To protect
older people and encourage stronger rights for women, the Chinese authorities

accept that the lack of a
basic system of social security has reinforced constraints on women’s
rights to inherit, their power in the family and society, as well as their
citizenship rights
recognise that the state has
an active role to play in extending rural social security programmes - to
promote welfare for all, especially women
challenge patriarchal practices in order to
realise equal inheritance rights for men and women in rural China.

The unfairness of the differences between traditional
rights of men and women will only change with effective social policies that
combat gender discrimination and exclusion.

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Authors and Publishers

Author(s), editor(s), contributor(s)

Heather Xiaoquan Zhang

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Geographical focus