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Gender Equality Calls for Legislative Efforts

As an important convention on human rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, has a core value to oppose all forms of discrimination against women and promote gender equality.


In this modern society, legislation is an important guarantee of human rights. Therefore the convention requires its signatories to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women into their legal systems, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women.


A signatory to the convention, China has adopted various measures to honor its commitment. It has made great efforts and gained many achievements in promoting equality between men and women. Now there is a complete legal system to protect women's rights and promote gender equality.


It takes the Constitution as the basis and the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women as the core, and encompasses various specific State laws and regulations, administrative decrees and regulations enacted by various government departments, as well as local legislation. The revised Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women enshrines gender equality as a basic State policy, which marks a new step forward in terms of China honoring the convention.


Of course, the gender equality issue has yet to be solved due to historical factors and our current level of development. In the legal aspect alone, the problems are as follows:


First, the definition of discrimination against women defined in the convention has not been incorporated into our laws. There are technical problems here, but the attitude of legislation is a bigger reason. Fixed concepts and behavioral traditions have impeded the process of legally defining discrimination.


Second, there remains a vague recognition of the status of the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women. This is a basic law that protects women's human rights and promotes gender equality, whose status is only next to that of the Constitution. Therefore, any other laws and regulation should not conflict with the ruling of this law. But in reality, many people cannot see its status as a basic law, or even think other general laws should take precedence over it. Others do not think it has a legal basis for enforcement and judicature. All of these factors have seriously impacted on the functioning of the law.


Third, there is an absence of necessary linkage with other laws to protect women's rights and interests and promote gender equality. For example, the law, revised in August 2005, has clarified the responsibilities of related departments to prevent and stop domestic violence. Related departments should provide relief to victims and the offenders should be held legally responsible. But in related laws such as the Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure Law and Regulation of Administrative Penalties for Public Security, there is no ruling about domestic violence. There is not even any such concept as domestic violence in the Regulation of Administrative Penalties for Public Security, which came out on the same day as the revised Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women.


Fourth, some laws and regulations lack the necessary gender consciousness.


For example, Article 18 of the Marriage Law rules that pre-marital property that is owned by one party shall be owned by either the husband or wife. It seems that the husband and wife are equal. But a closer look at the real situation in China shows there is inequality in this rule. In China, the groom usually arranges housing while the bride takes care of obtaining consumer goods such as the TV set and refrigerator. Once the couple gets a divorce, the house remains as valuable as before or even appreciates however the value of consumer goods falls or they even become worthless. This theoretical equality covers inequality in reality.


In addition, the hotly discussed draft law on property rights does not take into account gender equality. But in many parts of China, traditions and bias have affected women's ability to enjoy equal property rights. Their due rights are even deprived by some local agreements. Some experts point out that the common property of a family is often in the name of the male head of the household. Women's rights and interests cannot be well protected in the division of property during divorces. There should therefore be stipulations to address these issues in the law on property rights.


There are still many things to do to protect women's rights, promote gender equality and fully implement the convention. The government, non-governmental organizations and people from all walks of life should implement the basic State policy on gender equality, in order to guarantee that gender equality is incorporated into the macro economy and mainstream decision making for social development. Gender equality should be one of the core values of legislation. The legal system should be improved to guarantee women's equal rights in all aspects, abolish all kinds of discrimination and promote the development of gender equality in China.


The author is a professor at China Women's University.


(China Daily March 24, 2007)

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