Washington International Law Journal


H. Ray Liaw


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.

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