Much has been reported on the plight of workers migrating in droves to make a better living in the cities, but little attention has been given to the wives they leave behind. According to the All China Womens’ Federation, there are up to 50 million of these ‘left behind women’ in rural China.The impact of this rural exodus reaches every corner of these women’s lives, from their daily workload to their role in the family structure.
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Perhaps the most immediate effect of this exodus is the increased burden of domestic and farm work on the women left behind. The Harvard Asia Pacific review suggests that 60% of rural farm work is now done by women, compared to 40% in Africa and just 20% in the Americas (FAO 2011). Once the preserve of men, left behind women have to undertake tough manual labour to maintain their village lands. Additionally, women are still responsible for their traditional domestic duties, so are left with a double burden of farm work and domestic chores. Older generations are also involved, as much of the burden of childcare traditionally falls upon grandparents, as younger women are occupied working in the fields. It is this support from family members and the wider community that can change alleviate the double burden of left over women and help them gain independence.
The increased responsibility of left behind women has also led to increased independence and social standing in rural communities. With their husbands away, women take over as head of the household, making decisions independently and managing the household. Interestingly, left behind women who assume the leadership of the household are promoted to the same social position of male heads of households, a positive indicator for gender equality. The increased independence can be seen to empower rural women to further pursue positions of authority on a wider scale. According to Xinhua news agency, 2092 villages in Heilongjian prefecture alone are now governed by women. This is made all the more remarkable by the continued popularity of Confucianism and the strict patriarchal order it condones.
This empowerment seems to have also emerged in the commercial sector, with increasing numbers of rural women participating in commercial enterprises such as local textile and domestic businesses. Rural women are turning to township enterprises to supplement their income, with the state and charities offering loans to support them. According to China Daily, Yongren County alone has provided a total of 20.41 million yuan in preferential loans to left-behind women since 2009 . Not only are women entering commercial workplace, but they are become entrepreneurs and business leaders. In the provinces of Jiangsu, Guangdong, Anhui, Fujian and Henan there are 2000-3000 female directors of township enterprises, Xinhua reports. The case of Li Jiyan of Yongren country illustrates well how women are changing their own lives through township enterprises. Li started her own embroidery business in 2009 after her husband left for the city and has not looked back since. Her annual production revenue is now more than 3 million yuan.
"Before I started my own business, my income was 2,000 to 3,000 yuan per year. Now I make 150,000 to 160,000 yuan a year," Li said, adding that all of the left-behind women in her village have joined her association to embroider. With the average annual rural income remaining at about 5000 yuan (Chinese National bureau of statistics), this kind of situation is far from widespread. However, more and more women are entering businesses: it is currently estimated about 65% of workers in textile and domestic enterprises are women.
However, a significant hurdle still to overcome is that of educational equality. Despite the increased empowerment of women, and an increase in the number of household led by women, there remains a significant gender gap in schooling. According to one study by Hannum and Park, among a group of 400 Junior High school aged children, girls were 39% more likely to have left school than boys. However, compared to 20 years ago this gender inequality is now both less pronounced and also only appears when children are older and at a later stage of their education. Thus it would appear that although the migration of men to the cities has had a positive impact on the independence of some rural women, it has yet to significantly permeate into the realm of education.
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While the number of success stories in undoubtedly increasing, the situation of left behind women is still a double edged sword – they have an increased double burden but also benefit from increased independence and empowerment. While the rural lifestyle may be attractive to some, the bright lights of the big city are still a huge draw. The promise of a more independent life away from home, and a vastly increased salary potential still draws huge numbers of young women to China’s urban metropolises in pursuit of a better life.
While it perhaps too early to come to a definite conclusion, especially given the vastly different experiences of left behind women in different situations it would appear that there is a steadily increasing number of independently minded rural women. As long as they have sufficient support from their family and the community, it would seem that women are starting to embrace the responsibility and economic opportunities left by the absence of their husbands. This will undoubtedly continue in the future as more and more Chinese women are empowered to strive for independence and success of their own.