Realising their potential: how women became leaders in rural China

A grassroots programme in China has successfully trained young women to run in local elections, and dismantled negative perceptions and discriminatory rules that hindered their political participation.

UN Women
16 September 2016

Liao Bin, Head of her Village Committee in Hunan, China. Photo: UN Women/Jenni Ratilainen. All rights reserved.

Liao Bin, Head of her Village Committee in Hunan, China. Photo: UN Women/Jenni Ratilainen. All rights reserved.Liao Bin, from the Hunan province in China, was elected as the head of her Village Committee at 27. Her average day looks like this: hours spent in efforts to boost the economy of the village, caring for the left-behind children of migrant workers, and then whatever is left of the day she spends visiting village residents to hear about their concerns, and organising various skills training programmes for the villagers. 

“Chinese women are as capable to govern and lead as men, and must be given equal opportunities to do so,” she says.

Three years ago, Bin decided to pursue a career in local governance after participating in trainings on leadership and political participation for women under the ‘Enhancing Chinese Women’s Political Participation’ programme, run by All-China Women’s Federation, which is funded by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality.

Although it was an early champion of adopting temporary special measures and electoral quotas, China ranked 54 in 2015 in terms women’s parliamentary representation, with only 23.6% parliamentarians being women.

READ MORE: Why we need women leaders – and how we can get them there

From 2011 to 2015, the All-China Women’s Federation programme aimed at improving laws and policies, increasing women’s influence in local government and strengthening the capacity of government, women’s groups and civil society to monitor women’s political participation and rights in the provinces of Shanxi, Heilongjiang and Hunan. It contributed towards the adoption of many progressive policies — in Hunan, the updated election guidelines stipulated 30% representation of women in the village committees; in Heilongjiang the proportion was set to be more than 25%; and in Shanxi, at least 15%.

The programme led to a significant rise in the number of women active in politics and public life, exceeding the quotas

Through advocacy and leadership trainings, where women learned campaigning and management skills, and by working with both men and women in leadership positions, the programme led to a significant rise in the number of women active in politics and public life, exceeding the quotas. In Shanxi, women’s representation went up to 25.52% in 2014 from 8.61% in 2008; in Heilongjiang, it reached 25.35% in 2014, an increase of 4.05% from 2011. The programme engaged more than 1,800 policy-makers, 1,000 administrative and party school teachers and students, as well as 8,000 men and women at the village level.

Photo: All-China Women's Federation. All rights reserved.

Local women in China after casting their vote for Village Committee election. Photo: All-China Women's Federation. All rights reserved.Chu Lijuan, 41, had some experience in running for local elections when she heard about the training workshops in 2013. “I joined the workshop to gain campaigning skills so that I could prepare a better campaign for the next election,” she says. In 2014, Lijuan’s efforts paid off, and she became the head of the party committee in her village in the Heilongjiang province.

Along with setting up temporary special measures and quotas, the programme also engaged the media in advocacy for gender equality, highlighting positive role models and helping amend discriminatory village rules that hindered women’s political participation.

READ MORE: Is it enough to give women political power?

The gains that the programme made continue to grow today, contributing towards changes at the national level as well. Last year, the Chinese Human Resources Authority issued a regulation stipulating the same retirement age for female and male division chief/county-level officials and senior professionals, improving women’s chances to rise to higher-level management positions.

The gains that the programme made continue to grow today, contributing towards changes at the national level

“We are confident that the female political leaders whom the programme supported are helping to change negative perceptions of women’s capacities and inspiring other women to aspire to leadership positions,” says Julia Broussard, UN Women Country Programme Manager in China. “Chinese women have enormous leadership potential. It is important they get equal opportunities to demonstrate it.”

This article was originally published by UN Women.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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