Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Christina Gilmartin

p. 16

Far from home

When women leave their villages to marry

The market reforms instituted in China in the late 1970s have brought tremendous changes, both positive and negative for women. During this period, China has experienced an explosion of internal migration. In addition, this has been characterised by a shift from a traditional family migration pattern to the migration of unmarried women.

One aspect of Chinese female migration that has, thus far, not received much attention outside China is voluntary migration for the purpose of marriage. Intertwined with both illegal marriage migration and economic migration, this phenomenon has provided rural women with an important opportunity to improve their economic status. However, it has also exposed them to unusual risks, as they moved beyond the security of kinship networks. They may also find themselves with few resources to rely on if subjected to difficult circumstances in their new communities.

Women have almost always moved at the time of marriage in China. Marrying outside the village was held up as a normal and widely accepted practice. But the marriage market was radically expanded with the introduction of economic reforms in 1978. Women began to travel much larger distances, crossing county and provincial borders. Within a few years, some women began to venture hundreds and even thousands of miles to marry. By 1990, the official census showed the number of these women on the move had increased to 4,325,747, or 28 per cent of overall female migration in China. The numbers are believed to have continued to climb in the last decade.

There is some evidence to indicate that illegal marriage trafficking may also have spurred the emergence of a legal, voluntary marriage migration. In the first years of the reform era, alarming stories appeared in Chinese and Western newspapers about women from poor, rural areas falling prey to kidnappers and being sold as wives to poor farmers.

In order to reduce their isolation in their new homes and create a more supportive network in an unfriendly environment, these women began to encourage others from their home villages to migrate. In this way, illegal and legal marriage migrations became intertwined.

Recent marriage migrations have tended to follow certain distinct geographical patterns. In general, women come from the poorer areas of the southwest and travel to the rural areas of the richer sections of the eastern coast, especially Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Economic factors are critical in the decisions of those men who marry female migrants. The price of an immigrant bride is usually significantly less than for a local woman. Marriage migrants are using a traditional method of social mobility for women: matrimony. Many end up in much more affluent areas, and may well be satisfied. But many are never registered as residents and they may not have a marriage licence.

In such cases, women are not able to rely on legal protection if their marriages fail. And it appears that these marriages are more problematic. Some studies report that these women experience a higher level of dissatisfaction with their marriages than women who marry locally.

There may also be a disproportionately high number of migrant brides among the countless reports of wife battering and female suicides in rural areas.

It also appears that these women are seen as outsiders and face a great deal of discrimination and hostility in the community. The result is that they cling to their new families and lead fairly solitary existences, refusing to assume jobs in the public domain. This relatively hostile environment, coupled with the lack of relatives nearby, means that the main source of emotional and economic support for these women is their husband's family. But when these marriages include conflict, as is often the case, these women can find themselves with few resources. If the marriages fail before the birth of a child, the women rarely seek a legal divorce, and instead just leave the community.

While it has been argued that women's participation in these marriage migrations constitutes a type of female agency, it seems unlikely that the marriages are contributing to the creation of more egalitarian marriages.

By relying on their roles as wives and mothers to affect this shift from the poorer to the richer regions of China, they are in fact reinforcing male power within marriage relationships.

Christina Gilmartin is an associate professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston. This article is adapted from testimony presented to the US Congressional Executive Commission on China, Roundtable on Women's Rights in China's Changing Economy, on February 24.

South China Morning Post -- 03/08/03, p. 16

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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