Womens' rights and public legal education in China

China’s economic development over recent years has created new challenges for the country’s rapidly changing society, and in particular, to women living in the new industrial centres, commercial centres such as Beijing as well as those living in rural areas.

Support from the Asia Foundation has been pivotal to developing China’s legal system – including workers rights, the empowerment of women and legal awareness. We highlight here the work being done to empower women in the new factories, upholding women’s land rights, and new ‘Women’s Rights Protection Stations’ and ‘Sisters' Stations’.

Migrant women workers

Every year, millions of rural Chinese migrate to China’s major manufacturing centres in search of employment and a better life. Half of these migrants are young women who have little education or work experience. The women have scant knowledge of their rights under China’s labour laws1 and are unaware of the existing social services and support networks.

Since 1999, the Asia Foundation has implemented groundbreaking programmes to help protect migrant women workers and improve conditions and culture in Chinese factories. The programme began in the Pearl River Delta and has expanded to the Lowe Yangtze River Valley and Beijing to bring women workers access to health, education, personal counselling and legal aid services. They have been active in approximately 1,000 factories in the industrialised belt of southern Guangdong province in the Pearl River Delta.  More about the programme (421 KB).

Public legal education in the Guangdong factories

The Asia Foundation, with funding from the Levi Strauss Foundation, and the Guangdong Women’s Federation have adopted a range of activities to promote and protect the women’s rights. The Foundation works with the factory managers as well as the workers as,

‘it has been found that factory improvements are most likely to succeed when the factories ‘own’ compliance regulations, rather than being policed into compliance’.

The Federation produced and distributed a handbook covering women’s basic rights, ‘Learn to protect yourself’; a handbook on the labour and the personal rights of migrant women, ‘How much to you know about the rights and interests of migrant women workers’,and a handbook on occupational health and safety and preventable diseases. The Federation also organises street legal education fairs and consultation services.

In 2005, the Foundation with the support of May Merchandising Co. introduced the first vocational school and university scholarship programme for migrant women workers. Together with Microsoft they also developed a programme providing migrant women workers with IT literacy training.

Education and counselling centres have been set up to provide classes on relevant topics such as healthcare and occupational disease prevention, public safety, social norms and interpersonal skills in the workplace as well as legal rights and protection.

Many legal aid cases relate to health and safety and have been developed into educational materials on labour rights and law.

The Guangdong Women’s Federation established a Legal Aid Group to organise and manage professional legal aid for needy migrant workers. They organised a case study seminar on typical cases and subsequently published a selection of typical cases on labour disputes. The selection of cases included a theoretical analysis on each topic which can be used for teaching students in law schools and be used as a guide for lawyers and arbitrators.

1The Labour Contract Law of the People’s Republic of China came into effect on 1st January 2008.

Women’s empowerment

The Asia Foundation runs a women’s empowerment programme with local partners. The programme advances women’s empowerment through education, increasing economic security, mitigating the effects of natural disasters and helping women to access their legal rights.

The Foundation supports migrant workers to start or improve small businesses through technical training, networking opportunities, and access to credit. It has also helped women to rebuild their lives and communities following the earthquake that struck the Sichuan province in 2008. More about their programme (734 KB).

In 2009, the Asian Development Bank published a 'Good Practice Guide for incorporating legal empowerment into operations'. The guide suggests practical strategies for designing, implementing, and monitoring legal empowerment projects and considers the different constraints that women and disadvantages groups face in participating in development initiatives. Read the guide  (614 KB).

Women’s land rights

In 2002, the National People’s Congress passed the Rural Land Contract Law which legislates that ‘women have the equal rights as men in contracting the rural land’. With grants made by the Ford Foundation, the All-China Women’s Foundation raises awareness of women’s rights to land.

Their work includes training workshops and the development of training materials. The training includes providing participants with the background and underlying principles of the law. Issues raised on the enforcement of the law are discussed to explore alternative conflict solutions. The training includes communications skills, gender awareness and participation in decision-making.

Training materials and information pamphlets are designed for different groups: local government officials, village residents, federation staff, legal assistance workers, and women living in rural areas. The information includes guidance on how to conduct information campaigns in the rural areas. More about the programme.

Women’s rights protection stations

Women’s federations in the Hebei Province, to the north east of China conducted research on how best to protect womens’ rights and as a result established ‘Women’s rights protection stations’ in towns. The function of the stations is to:

Persist in grass-roots rights protection work, offer services especially to rural women and build a harmonious society.

They aim to ensure that rural women are able to resolve their problems and difficulties, and protect their rights and interest, within the community. To this end, the federations organise various training sessions, including education about the law and regulations and how to handle the difficulties concerning women’s rights protection – to cadres to women’s federations at the gross-roots level.

Co-operating with relevant departments (including the People’s Court and government departments), local women’s federations organise public events during holidays, during slow seasons and on special village market days. Activities include ‘Legal aid to every village’ and ‘Protecting women and children’s rights and interests’.

More about Women's rights protection stations.

Training on legal rights has also been carried out as part of a project in the Sichuan Province to help combat the trafficking of women and children. More information about the project carried out by UNICEF, the All China Women’s Federation and the Ministry of Public Security can be found in this briefing (59 KB).

Sisters’ stations in Beijing

The protection of women’s rights in Beijing has been considered to the primary responsibility of women’s federations who have been exploring new ways of meet the various and changing needs of women in the capital.

In 2008, the Beijing women's federation established the first ‘Sisters’ station’ – a grass-roots public welfare organisation that provides various services, including legal aid and various publicity and education activities. The stations offer different services for specific groups. In the communities, ‘Sisters’ stations’ organise volunteers to provide women with rights-protection services. In office buildings, they offer special ‘mental help for rights protection', including psychological counselling, lectures on labour law and holding social activities to help women relieve work-related pressure. In areas with large migrant populations, the stations have established the ‘Migrant women’s peaceful families’ campaign and helped to enhance and improve services to protect womens’ rights. More about Sisters stations.

Asia Foundation

The Asia Foundation has been supporting legal reform in China since 1979, co-operating with government, NGO’s such as women’s foundations and community groups as well as academics

The Asia Foundation’s law and governance programmes build on its longstanding support for developing administrative law; encouraging public participation in administrative rulemaking and lawmaking; providing technical assistance on implementing open government information regulations’ and support the provision of legal aid.

The programme encourages the participation of community groups in government decision making on grassroots development and poverty alleviation.

The Foundation is a private, non-profit non-governmental organisation funded from corporations, foundations and individuals and government organisations in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia and an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress.

More about: The Asia Foundation

Legal aid centres

The Asia Foundation provides assistance to legal aid centres in some of China’s poorest areas to increase the capacity of the centres to handle civil cases and promote public legal education.

The government sponsors legal aid centres in every province in China, with the majority of cases handled by local and municipal legal aid centres. A wide range of legal services run by NGOs, women’s groups and universities. These groups litigate, counsel, mediate and educate. Funding for the centres comes from local government. International donors provide support and in some cases sponsor Chinese law graduates to work at the centre.

For example, in 2010 law students from Tsinghua University organised capacity building training courses for rural legal aid volunteers. They also provided legal literacy materials for ‘passers-by’ on issues related to day to day life: marriage and family relations, relations between land and housing laws and labour contracts.

In a report they commented:

In the course of this activity, volunteers deeply felt that legal and rights awareness of the general public is beginning to awaken, which further strengthened their confidence in the national rule of law.

By the end of 2009, some 3,274 legal aid organisations and 58,031 legal aid services had been set up at the provincial, city and county levels.

Legal aid in China

Legislation for the provision of legal assistance was first introduced in China in 1996 in Article 34 of the revised Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China. The Lawyers Law was passed later in the same year and was more specific and was designed to lay the foundation for future legislation on legal aid. In 1997, a Centre for Legal Assistance was created under the Ministry of Justice to supervise and co-ordinate legal assistance across the country. At the same time, the China Legal Aid Foundation was set up to raise, manage and use funds, publicise the legal aid system and promote justice.

‘Regulations on Legal Aid’ issued by the Ministry of Justice were made effective in September 2003. Article 3 of the law stipulates:

Legal aid is the responsibility of the state. The state should operate positive measures to promote legal aid work; provide financial support for legal aid; and, ensure that legal aid services are coordinated together with social and economic development’.

This is the first time that a Chinese law designates legal aid as a formal responsibility of the state.

Writing in 2005 for Open Democracy, human rights lawyer Agnes Chong commented: ‘

The two conflicting interpretations of the provision provide on one hand, a positive step in the government’s acceptance of its responsibility to defend its citizens’ rights; and on the other, a threat to the autonomy of NGO groups that take on controversial cases against the state, for example cases which may help transform the rule of law in China.

The Asia Foundation's annual report for 2009 reports that they continue through a network of local legal aid organisations, to support pro-bono legal services for disadvantaged citizens, paying particular attention to the rights of women.

'We are also actively involved in increasing awareness of laws and legal procedures among vulnerable groups and have targeted remote communities using everyday language and national and community radio. Last year we helped to provide mobile legal aid services to thousands of poor people'.