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Law Revised to Protect Women's Rights
Rong Jiaojiao, China Features

As if a special gift to the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women convened in Beijing in 1995, China is revising its 13-year-old Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests to further guarantee gender equality in the country. Enforced thirteen years ago in 1992, the law has won great acknowledgement among experts. "It is the first law in China specifically enacted to safeguard women's legitimate rights and interests, to promote equality between men and women and to enable women to play an active role in society, and millions of women have benefited from it," says Prof. Wu Changzhen, director of the group for revising this law, who as a deputy to the National People's Congress was also involved in drafting the law on women's protection 13 years ago. "While China's economy develops rapidly in the past years, Chinese women have obtained higher status both in society and in the family than in the time when the law first came out. However, new problems relating to women's rights have cropped up, which the first law might not foresee," she says. Meanwhile, women have become more conscious of their rights, "hence the necessity to ensure their rights with a legal back up," says Wu. "So in November 2002, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the law, the national legislature adopted the proposal of revising the law, and three years later, after several rounds of corrections, this draft amendment finally came into surface." The most important provision of the draft amendment of the law, observes Prof. Chen Mingxia, director of the Center for Gender and Law Studies, is that "it is the first time for a Chinese law to state explicitly the equality of women and men as the state policy. " She notes that the equality of women and men has been stipulated in the National Program for Women Development(2001-2010) since 1995 as the Chinese government's commitment to the Platform for Action adopted at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. "In the past ten years the Chinese government has faithfully honoured its commitment, which has widely won acknowledgement among international community," she says. "But this commitment has to be woven into legal provision and passed to the future policy makers." Another new provision that Prof. Chen speaks highly of is that the government will take proper measures to iron out the all forms of discrimination against women. "It is in accordance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women made by the United Nations in 1979, which China ratified in 1980," says Prof. Chen. "This is a major move indicating the Chinese government's responsibility for its commitment to this international convention, with regard to women's development in a global perspective." The amendment to the 1992 law also has stipulations on women's representation in the country's power structure. For one thing, it requires in the legal form that the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislature, and local people's congresses at all levels should have adequate numbers of women deputies and should gradually raise the ratios of women deputies in them. It also stipulates that at least one woman should be included in each village committee and more measures should be taken to raise the political status of Chinese women, including training women officials and promoting them into for leading positions. Since 1978 the women's representation at the NPC has been stagnant at 20 percent, against the current international average of 30 percent. This brings China's ranking in the world in women's political participation down from the 12th in 1994 to the 37th in 2004. Also undesirable is women's representation in administrative power. Among the 198 women deputies to China's NPC, only five are in the decision making position in the legislature and central government. By the end of 2003, the women's representation in village committees was less than 20 percent while only one percent of the village heads were women throughout China, according to the All-China Women's Federation. "It is good news that the central government has seen the gap between women and men in policy making," says Mo Wenxiu, vice chairwoman of the All-China Women's Federation. "However, the provision just gives a rather general guideline than any specific quota as to how many more on earth can women join the top-level suite." But Mo is satisfied with the draft amendment for women's economic right, "It reinforces the women's rights to property by stipulating that female farmers enjoy the same right to contract, to purchase or to own the farm land," she says. "Economic independence is the most basic and crucial step to achieve gender equality. So this provision is very inspiring." The amendment also enhances women's equality with men to enjoy the same rights to education and to work. Such equality should sustain from the beginning of the schooling throughout the education, employment, promotion to opportunity to continuing education and awards. The revised law pays special attention to the job discrimination against women. It stipulates that sex should not constitute a pretext for refusing to hire a woman, and the statement that certain positions "are unfit for women" will be made illegal. The principle of "equal pay for equal work" is retained, which is substantiated to equal treatment concerning housing assignments, material benefits and remuneration. Despite these encouraging new provisions, Dr. Xia Yinlan, president of China Family Law Association and also vice chairwoman of Beijing Women's Federation, regrets that the amendment fails to state that women and men must retire from work at the same age. The amendment says it is in accordance with relevant government stipulations regarding the age of retirement, notes Dr. Xia. "But the only government stipulation concerning this point is made by the Ministry of Personnel, which differentiates the age for retirement at 60 for men and 55 for women." Xia calls this "inequality" and says the amendment acquiesces it by doing nothing about it. Another highlight is that sexual harassment, for the first time, is made unlawful through legislation. The revision draft states unequivocally that it is illegal to subject women to sexual harassment and it also urges all the enterprises and government institutions to take steps to prevent the occurrence of sexual harassment. But Prof. Chen Mingxia views it only in a very initial stage and thinks lots of points need to be put into the law against sexual harassment, including a clearer definition of sexual harassment and more specific stipulation on the issue of evidence. Additionally, "a heavy penalty of compensation for psychological sufferings of victims should also be put into practice," she says. Abortion remains another thorny issue for lawmakers. Selective abortion of female foetus and female infanticide are prohibited in the draft amendment to address China's gender imbalance for newborn, with a ratio disproportioned at 100 female to 117 male babies, according to China's fifth national census compiled in 2004. Yet some legal experts are unwilling to take legal action against such abortions, believing women should have freedom of choice in childbearing. "It is urgent to redress this discrepancy, but selective abortion cannot be controlled without blanket restrictions on all terminations, as there is no way to prove why a woman decides to have an abortion," says Dr. Xia. Beyond the academic circles, the draft amendment also sparks concern among general public. Yan Xiaoxing, a 50-year-old Nanjing civil servant, thinks that the society has provided many opportunities for women in the past decades and women's social status has been raised a lot. "The key issue is that we as women ourselves should broaden our horizons, learn hard to be more knowledgeable, increase our awareness of gender equality and self-confidence as well," she says. "If you are not ready and competitive, no one is to blame but yourself." The expression of "glass ceiling" has been coined for the last two decades, but to date it is still difficult for women to climb up on the corporate ladder, says 32-year-old Ma Ning, who works for an English newspaper in Beijing. " A workplace which fosters gender equality will surely foster profitability, owing to the team-building and communication skills of women. So specific measures should be mentioned in the revised law to protect women's rights in workplace," she says. Gu Mingliang, a 27-year-old software engineer in Nanjing, holds that the equality between women and men is not that they are the same, rather, "the merit of each gender can be shown into full fledge." "Women are neither men in skirts nor ribs of men. They are the unique human beings like us men on this planet," he says. Indeed, the simple word "equality" does imply deep meanings. Above all, observes Tan Ling, director of Women's Studies Institute of China, the evaluation on the work done by women and men should be equal. "In a male-dominant society, specifically, women should be empowered. This revised law, hopefully, will make the ball start to roll," she says.