Abstract: 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.4
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
While China's recent reforms to strengthen land tenure security hold potential to improve the economic welfare of 850 million rural poor,8 the social mores intersecting with these reforms limit women's rights to land. In 1998, China promulgated sweeping changes for farmers via the Land Management Law,9 guaranteeing land use contracts for thirty-year terms and greatly limiting the scope of "readjustments"10 during the interim. Simultaneously, reports emerged that rural women experienced discriminatory treatment in land allocations.11 Field research conducted with women between the ages of eighteen and fifty revealed that those married after 1995, the year when many villages began implementing a noreadjustment policy, were more likely to have no land share.12 Meanwhile women's economic participation in agriculture increased following implementation of the Household Responsibility System ("HRS")13 in the early 1980s.14 Today, women's relationship to the land is central to rural China's economic welfare.15
China's legal framework fails to support women's rights to land at marriage, divorce, and widowhood. Despite a constitutional guarantee of gender equality16 and myriad national laws ostensibly protecting women's right to property, women's status within the family and at the village level has not substantially improved.17 Virilocal (or patrilocal) residence patterns, whereby a woman becomes part of her husband's household, remain the norm in rural China.18 A woman's father, husband, or father-in-law serves as de facto head of household.19 China enacted the 2003 Rural Land Contract Law ("RLCL") in part to remedy women's loss of land by preserving a woman's share of land in her natal village upon marriage or in her marital village upon divorce or widowhood.20 Yet social realities in rural China limit the effectiveness of this provision. …