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

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 fromUniversity College Chester analyses the transfer of resources betweengenerations within households and village communities in rural China, withparticular reference to Dongdatun, a village in thenorth. Women’s access to family resources is limited by patriarchal inheritancesystems, which favour male family members.

In Dongdatun,as in many villages, recent years have seen a marked diversification of rurallivelihoods, a rapid growth of rural industry and a diversification ofownership structures. However, changing economic conditions caused by the endingof rural communes has reduced rural people’s security. In the absence of stateor collectively financed social security, needs that are met by social welfareservices in China’s cities are still perceived as the responsibility ofindividuals in rural areas.

In ruralsocieties, the focus of women’s lives is their husbands’ families, due to thepersistence of ‘patrilocal marriage’, in which awoman moves into her husband’s village at marriage. Daughters leave their natal(birth) families, but sons stay put. This means rural people continue to relyon sons for security and support in ill health or retirement.

Evidence frominterviews with village women showed that:

  • Most women do not have thesame inheritance rights as their brothers nor do they try to claim them.
  • Many women still believethat a ‘virtuous woman’ should not assert her own interests in the homeand should avoid household disputes through tolerance and unselfishness.
  • Traditional beliefs are sostrongly held that many women also have negative attitudes towardsdaughters’ inheritance rights.

Thissituation appears to be changing, however. Improved opportunities for women tohave paid jobs, education and training have increased their confidence andbargaining power in the transfer and redistribution of resources within thehousehold. Young village women defend the legitimacy of ‘uxorilocal’marriage, in which the husband lives with his wife’s family. More marrieddaughters now stay on in their natal households. The question of rural women’sinheritance rights – particularly married women’s’ inheritance to parental estatesand remarried widows’ inheritance rights in their previous married families –is now discussed more openly.

A lack ofsimilar legal mechanisms for old-age security, combined with the persistence ofpatrilocal marriage, has reinforced the tradition of passing resources ontosons, the denial of daughters’ inheritance rights and the need for families toprovide security for the elderly. However, the traditional security of extendedand close family structures is now under threat from rural industrialisation,population mobility and family planning laws.

To protectolder people and encourage stronger rights for women, the Chinese authoritiesshould:

  • accept that the lack of abasic system of social security has reinforced constraints on women’srights to inherit, their power in the family and society, as well as theircitizenship rights
  • recognise that the state hasan active role to play in extending rural social security programmes - topromote welfare for all, especially women
  • challenge patriarchal practices in order torealise equal inheritance rights for men and women in rural China.

The unfairness of the differences between traditionalrights of men and women will only change with effective social policies thatcombat gender discrimination and exclusion.