Empowering rural women: report details challenges

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To raise awareness and better understand the needs and challenges surrounding the economic empowerment of women in rural China — and to support women in improving their living conditions, YouChange China Social Entrepreneur Foundation and Tsinghua University’s Philanthropy and NGO Support Center jointly released the 2021 Rural Women’s Economic Empowerment Research Report.

According to statistics from China’s sixth national census in 2010, the rural female population (including villages and towns) accounted for 34 percent of the total population. Excluding about 99.71 million female migrant workers who left rural areas to work in the cities, the report focuses mainly on the 250 million rural women aged 16 to 70 who currently have the ability to work in the villages and towns. This group of women undertake most of the agricultural production and family care work and face many survival and development challenges.

The report analyzes the current situation and development challenges of rural women in economic development, employment, family status, rights protection, health, etc., and provides suggestions accordingly.

Economic conditions

The economic situation of rural women has seen significant improvements, but their average income is significantly lower than that of rural men and urban women.

Using data from the 2017 China General Social Survey (CGSS), the report found that the income of rural women was about 16,419 yuan ($2,587) per year, compared to about 33,080 yuan per year for rural men and about 46,806 yuan for urban women.

Rural women have largely replaced men in agricultural production, while men leave rural areas to enter non-agricultural work to earn more for their families. While the proportion of rural women entering cities to work has increased, women living in villages and towns still provide the bulk of agricultural labor.

The non-agricultural employment rate and income of rural women remains lower than that of their male counterparts. Globally, 42 percent of working-age women are unemployed due to family responsibilities, compared to only 6 percent of men — a burden that often forces them to reduce their hours of paid work or even to exit the labor market.

Family responsibilities are also the main reason why rural women cannot participate in non-agricultural employment. Traditional Chinese gender roles are another factor that significantly reduce the possibility of rural married women participating in non-agricultural employment, thereby reducing their working time and income.

Social life

Rural women are responsible for the majority of housework, children’s education, and caring for elderly relatives. Globally, women in rural areas of low-income countries spend 14 hours a day on unpaid family care work — five times more than men from the same areas.

The suicide rate of rural women has dropped significantly, due to the increasing employment and education opportunities brought by China’s social and economic development over the past decade. However, according to the report, rural women are under a lot of pressure, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety remain a problem.

The overall social status of rural women has improved, but a big gap remains compared with the social status of rural men. Issues such as rural women’s rights and the management of land contracts remain unresolved, and the social status and possession of resources means that men are still in a dominant position, according to the report. This disparity is particularly pronounced in some of the ethnic minority areas.

To address the problems identified, the research team made some suggestions. For example, social organizations should design projects based on the actual needs of rural women, set the project cycle as long as possible, and try to partner with companies, foundations and local governments for more sustainable financial and policy support.

The report also calls for relatively long-term attention and a certain level of openness from the potential funders for their continuous funding of rural women’s economic empowerment as well as social and policy advocacy projects.

The economic development of rural women is vital to achieving comprehensive rural development and revitalization, as well as tackling climate change and other issues. The major obstacle to the economic empowerment of all Chinese women lies in the heavy burden of family care — so for the implementation of the rural revitalization strategy and the sustainable development of the Chinese economy, more projects are needed to improve the social support system for childcare and pensions and the economic empowerment support system for women, the report concludes.