Land Development Engulfs Precious Chinese Farmland

Development in China is eating up farmland. That's bad news for Chinese women, who make up about 70 percent of landless farmers in the country. But there is hope that changing values in a modernizing China will eventually mean better lives for the women.

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Farmers in China are losing their land to development. But some farmers are losing more land than others. According to official statistics, 70 percent of landless Chinese farmers are women.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from the city of Hohhot in Inner Mongolia.

ANTHONY KUHN: As it struggles to catch up with more developed cities, Hohhot's urban sprawl is swallowing up rural communities like Shalyangs(ph) village where high-rise buildings sprout from the wheat fields.

Most people in the village are surnamed Zhu(ph). When the village parceled out land to residents 10 years ago, it passed over farmers Zhu Day Yin(ph). Zhu is now 37 and unemployed.

Ms. ZHU DAY YIN (Resident, Hohhot): (Through Translator) Village officials said they weren't giving land to the villagers' daughters. They discriminated against daughters who were married off to other villages.

They said that daughters who were married into other villages were like spilled water.

KUHN: In rural China, women usually move in to their husband's villages when they marry. After that, the women's original villages regard them as outsiders or spilled water. Many villages refused to allocate them state-owned housing and farmland. Women who stay in their home villages and marry men from outside also face discrimination.

That's what happened to Zhu Zhang Lu(ph), a tall and wiry 48-year-old. Both she and her husband are unemployed. The village didn't give her housing so she scrape together enough to build her own simple home.

Last year, Zhu and 27 other women sued the Shalyangs, the village government alleging discrimination. Village and city officials declined to comment on the case. In June, a local court ruled in the women's favor and ordered the village to give them housing.

Speaking in her parent's home, Zhu says their victory was short-lived.

Ms. ZHU ZHANG LU (Shalyangs Resident): (Through Translator) We received a phone call saying that the verdict could not be enforced on schedule. It was because the verdict had aroused the opposition of the other villagers. Our desire to survive, suddenly, evaporated.

KUHN: Chinese farmers, both male and female, consider land their only guarantee of survival. And they're not about to share it with people they consider outsiders. But this traditional mindset conflicts with the growing awareness of gender equality and legal rights.

Zhu Zhang Lu's sister Zhe Zhula(ph) explains.

Ms. ZHE ZHULA LU (Shalyangs Resident): (Through Translator) Even old people's ideas are changing. A few years ago, it wasn't this way, boys and girls were considered different. But now, people's consciousness of this issue is stronger. They watched more TV and they begin to understand.

KUHN: Farmers are already an underclass in China. Women are an underclass within that underclass. A recent study by the All-China Women's Federation found out that more than a quarter of women surveyed were never given land.

More than 45 percent had their land taken by local governments when they married. Li Ying is a lawyer with Women's Watch-China, a non-profit group that has helped the Hohhot women. She says that rural women need land to survive.

Ms. LI YING (Women's Watch China): (Through Translator) While most men are able to work in the cities as migrant laborers, women are left to plant most of the fields. They have fewer educational opportunities and are more likely to be illiterate. The land means more to them than to men.

KUHN: The problem of landless women involves powerful clashes of social and economic interests. As a result, most Chinese courts have just refused to hear cases like the one in Hohhot.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.

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