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Ms. Yuan Qing, a village head from Anfeitang Village, Changfeng County, Anhui Province rides through rice fields, on her way to establish partnerships between factories and local women to help improve their income, August 2019. ©UNFPA China/Huang Qiong

Yuan Qing, aged 32, is the head of Anfeitang Village, Changfeng County in Anhui Province. Orphaned by her parents, she grew up with her grandparents and suffered from gender discrimination. As a girl, she was refused to go to senior high school, simply because her family thought that girls should marry at an early age.

However, the experience did not stop Yuan from pursuing her life’s potential and advocating for the rights of women and girls.

Revising gender-discriminatory village regulations

In 2015, as a village cadre in Anfeitang Village, Yuan was responsible for revising gender-discriminatory village rules and regulations. These were rules and regulations under which the villagers could govern their village in line with national policies. Yuan’s actions were driven by the UNFPA supported grass-root interventions in addressing gender-biased sex selection. 

“At first, I had no idea about how to push promotion of gender equality,” Yuan admitted. 

She visited villagers house-to-house to collect their opinions on how to improve the village’s regulations. This approach gained little success, as many people told her that women and men were already equal. 

However, some entrenched cultural attitudes and discriminatory practices against women and girls existed, as Yuan’s own story attested to. 

Furthermore, she encountered more such practices in daily life. For example, during festivals, it was only men who could sit and enjoy the feast with guests, while women worked in the kitchen; during village committee meetings, it was only men who could make final decisions, while a small number of women could be present and give their opinion.

Yuan invited villagers to participate in gender equality trainings, and explore gender stereotypes through role play. After that, more villagers began to realize how differently women and men were being treated.

Now, with revised village regulations, men are encouraged to share domestic labour, while women are encouraged to participate in public decision-making, with gender quotas requiring that half of the village committee members are women.

In the past, married or divorced women were not entitled to the rights to own land. Now, women enjoy the same rights to own land as men, regardless of their marital status or if they come from families with only daughters. 

Economic empowerment of women

As a practitioner of the project, Yuan realized how empowering women and improving their economic status is an important strategy to change social norms including a culture of son preference. Since 2018, Yuan has taken a further step in protecting women’s rights and interests through economic empowerment. With support from UNFPA and the local government, Yuan has organized trainings on employment skills for left-behind women, which significantly helped improve their incomes. 

Five women from the village have been given specialist certification in household management and offered high-paying job in cities. 

For those women who could not leave the village, they have been given support in innovative ways of farming, for example, harvesting shrimp, fish and rice grown together in the same field to earn more income. Now, women can earn an additional CNY1,000 (around USD150) for every acre of land they previously used only for growing rice.

Being economically independent, women now win more respect from their husbands and are more able to voice their rights and choices. As gender-based constraints are reduced, women have gained more opportunities to participate in the civil, cultural, political and social life of the village.

Anfeitang village has been transformed with improved gender equality and a weakened son preference. More people understand the value of daughters and are witnessing how girls and women can change society for the better. Now, Yuan has gained a high reputation amongst the villagers and grown from an ordinary village cadre to a prestigious female village head. She has been continuously working on contacting factories to establish partnerships and mobilize resources for local women to become economically independent. 

“Advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment has become deeply rooted in my mind and has become a part of my daily life and work,” Yuan said.