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UPDATED: October 28, 2009 NO. 43 OCTOBER 29, 2009
Becoming Equal
Chinese women have seen their rights strengthened over the past 60 years

DARE TO LOVE: To promote marriage rights written into the May 1950 Marriage Law, a Beijing textile factory used worker Li Zuobin's marriage to create an illustrated story and posted it on the factory wall in 1953 (XINHUA)

Beginning November 1, an updated local regulation will explicitly guarantee victims' rights to report domestic violence in Beijing, according to the city's legislature in September. It is women who are predominantly the victims of such crimes and whom the new rules are designed to help. The regulation is being hailed as one of the country's latest steps forward in protecting women's rights. The new rules are Beijing's implementation of the national Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests.

China issued its first edict on the subject, the Marriage Law, seven months after the People's Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949, which clearly stipulated that husbands and wives were equals. The 96th article of the Constitution, promulgated in 1954, said that women were to enjoy equal rights with men in all aspects of life, including in political, economic, cultural and social spheres and in family life. In 1968, Chairman Mao Zedong announced one of his most famous sayings, "Women can hold up half the sky."

But it did not become less difficult for a woman to leave an unhappy marriage until 1980. According to the 1954 Marriage Law, when only one party desired to end the marriage, divorce was only permitted if government meditation between the husband and wife failed. In practice, though, the meditation process after an unhappy wife filed for divorce could drag on for years, except in extreme cases, such as the commission of a crime by the husband.

A new Marriage Law, issued in September 1980, introduced the option to file for divorce when only one person wanted to end the marriage. The change rid a large number of women of their unhappy marriages. According to statistics from the Civil Affairs Department of the Hubei Provincial Government, the province's divorce rate tripled immediately after the new law took effect.

Marriage freedom

"I believe the most important impact of these laws on people's mentality toward marriage is to advocate for people's freedom within marriages," said Xia Yinlan, a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law and an expert on marriage and family laws, during an interview with China Women's News. She explained that people's freedom within marriages includes, among other things, the ability to get divorced. She said the core of the marriage legislation ensures people's happiness, whether they are married or divorced.

An amendment to the Marriage Law in 2001 has added clauses to protect the interests of women, children and the elderly, such as banning children from interfering in their parents' choices in remarriage or post-remarriage life. This became necessary because elderly widows in rural areas often met with strong opposition from their children when planning to get remarried due to their offspring's concern about inheritance and financial support.

Since extramarital affairs and domestic violence have become issues of serious social concern, the amendment included new clauses governing bigamy, domestic violence and maltreatment or desertion of a family member. These have been prohibited and married people are not allowed to cohabit with others.

The 2003 Regulation on Marriage Registration has further simplified the procedures for registering marriages and divorces. The regulations say that citizens no longer need to present letters from employers proving their marital statuses.

Legal rights

On April 3, 1992, the Seventh National People's Congress, China's top legislature, adopted the Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests. It was a milestone in the country's legal system for promoting gender equality and China's first to comprehensively protect women's rights.

Society has long considered sexual harassment an immoral behavior and has dictated that violators be punished under public security laws. Since the dawn of the new century, more and more people have come to realize that sexual harassment is not a morality violation, but a crime. The amendment to the Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests, issued in 2005, was the first to clearly prohibit sexual harassment against women. Article 40 of the revised law states, "Sexual harassment against women is banned. The victims shall be entitled to complain to their employers or the relevant organs."

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