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Women Active in Labor Migration
Amass migration takes place every year after Spring Festival as tens of millions young men and women leave their rural hometowns to look for jobs in cities. Their journey often ends in many workshops, construction sites, small restaurants and barber shops.

But their links with their families in remote villages do not become weaker. Instead, the bonds between them are tightened through the regular remittance payments they send back.

Most of them will even return home after living in the cities for a few years and become farmers again.

China's labor market is increasingly flexible which makes this migrations possible for rising numbers of young men and women from rural China.

New surveys have found that women have caught up with men in moving to cities for work over the past decade in China.

And women even surpassed men in some age groups, which is in sharp contrast to other Asian countries where such migration has been dominated by men, according to a survey released at the first International Rice Congress held in Beijing from September 16-20.

The survey - conducted by a research team from the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) - also found incomes earned by migrant workers have become the most important factor that contributed to household income growth in rural China in the 1990s. And this trend will not change in the foreseeable future, the researchers said.

On the other hand, the change in the gender composition of migrant workers over the same time period has had an enormous impact on crop-farming and women's role in family life.

Zhang Linxiu, a researcher from the CAS center who led the survey covering 1,200 households in six provinces across China, said this would benefit rural households and the women themselves.

According to Zhang, there has been hot debate over whether labor migration from rural areas would have an adverse impact on agricultural industries, causing such problems as agricultural feminization. "Our survey found that over the 10 years from 1990 to 2000, labor migration has had little adverse impact economically on the 1,200 rural households surveyed," she said.

Zhang said her research team has tracked the non-farming employment history of each of the 1,200 households, which were picked on a random basis. They have conducted interviews with half of them.

Agricultural feminization has happened in certain areas, but it is not as serious as in many other Asian countries, she said.

Part of the reason may be that more younger women have joined men in migrating rather than staying at home.

Although men still constitute the bulk of the migrant labor force, women are quickly catching up, especially in the younger age groups, she said.

The survey found that 21 percent of men aged between 16 to 20 were doing non-farming jobs in 1990, compared with 13 percent of women of the same age.

In 2000, 76 percent of women of the same age range were migrant workers, compared with 75 percent of men.

It was also observed that more women aged between 16-20 and living in poor areas were quitting farming for other work. In 1990, just one of every 10 women of surveyed households in poor regions was doing non-farming work. In 2000, the rate increased to seven of every 10.

Both groups send remittance money home and this has constituted a steady source of family income.

"It is generally a good thing for these women, who gain money and experience their mothers might not have had," Zhang said.

But the survey also found a steady decline in the number of women migrant workers in the age groups above the 16-20 range, showing most women chose to return home after working away for a few years.

Men tended to stay longer in cities, leaving women to play an increasingly central role in crop farming and family management, Zhang said. "If such a trend continues, agricultural feminization will eventually spread into more rural regions," she said.

However, it will not necessarily have a negative impact on agricultural production.

It was found, to their surprise, that the effect of the change in roles of men and women in crop-farming following labor migration appeared to be positive rather than negative in most cases.

"We have found the income from farming of female-led households to be higher than the male-led ones in the same village," she said.

"It was rather an interesting surprise to us."

One possible reason is that women who are in charge of family matters tend to be more focused on farming, since they often do not do work off the farm, Zhang said.

Another reason might be that women-led households generally have at least one man who does full-time non-farming jobs and can send back remittance payments to help break production constraints, she said.

"If this was not the case then women would not take on all the farming that was traditionally taken by men," Zhang said.

"The fact that they are doing so hints that men in the family may be doing something more lucrative.

(China Daily October 8, 2002)

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