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Women deserve half the world, and should get it
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Li Ying feels helpless at times trying to breach the "impregnable fortress" society has built around itself. Her mission is to reach the women confined in that "fortress" and realize their rights.

The deputy director of Peking University's Center of Women's Law and Legal Services (CWLLS) and her colleagues have been providing legal help to rural women for a decade. Most of these women have been denied their rights to equal financial benefits, their share of allocated land and compensation for land acquisition. The Constitution and laws are on their side, she says, because they state clearly a woman is entitled to the same economic benefits as those enjoyed by a man.

Ask her what then is stopping them from their rights, and she says promptly: weak enforcement of law by local governments and courts, strong resistance from village committees, whose members still prefer a son to a daughter and believe a woman is not entitled to share public resources. The village committees' resistance, often disguised as a common decision, makes intervention by supervising local administrations a problem because they don't want to interfere with the country's autonomy rules. What's worse is that some local courts refuse to entertain rural women's complaints when they realize passing a verdict would be difficult.

The case of Han Dongmei, of Tongcheng in Anhui province, is the first that Li won, in 2005. Han and four other women live in a Tongcheng suburb. And though they hold the same residency registration as other villagers, the village committee denied them the compensation money for the land sold for commercial use. The pretext: they were married outside the village.

During the hearing, Li and her colleagues had to face aggressive villagers who tried to force them to withdraw the case. Their contention was: why don't the women go and share the resources in their husbands' villages. In the end, however, Han won the case.

What came as a greater relief to Li was the change, for the better, in the attitude of other villages' residents. But in general, local governments and courts are not as supportive as those in Tongcheng, Li says.

For instance, a group of 14 women fighting a case similar to that of Han in Yan'an, Shaanxi province, have not been as lucky. All the women, irrespective of their marital status, have their residency at Pigedu village in Wanhuashan town. The only difference between them and the male villagers, including their brothers, is their gender. Still they are treated as "guests" by their fellow villagers, and have no right to vote in village affairs or share the financial benefits.

They were denied their share of 22 million yuan ($2.8 million) the village committee got from the sale of 40 hectares of land four years ago. To get their rightful due, the women began calling up local government departments, seeking administrative help. Needless to say, they didn't get any help because the local administration didn't want to interfere with the village committee's decision for fear of violating autonomy rules.

Local officials reportedly even said they feared a domino effect if the women won the case because the district has 10,000 "female guests". Though Li Chengying has only a year's education, she speaks a lawyer's mind: "I simply don't understand how can any legal consideration or fear be above the Constitution." She learned what the laws say about women's rights to fight her and 32 other women's case. Unfortunately 19 of them withdrew their claims under family pressure.

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