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Explained: China’s draft law to protect women’s rights

Unlike the country’s existing laws, the proposed legislation lays down a specific definition for "discrimination against women" for the first time.

Written by Rahel Philipose | Panaji |
Updated: December 24, 2021 9:21:04 am
A Chinese women wearing military costume march during their daily exercises at a square outside a shopping mall in Beijing. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Amid a growing number of sexual harassment and domestic violence cases and a year full of setbacks for its fledgling #MeToo movement, China is set to update and strengthen its nearly three-decade-old law to protect women’s rights both at the workplace and at home.

On Monday, China’s top legislative body — the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) — began to review a draft amendment to the ‘Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women’, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Unlike the country’s existing laws, the proposed legislation lays down a specific definition for “discrimination against women” for the first time. The revised draft provides detailed descriptions of what would qualify as sexual harassment in the workplace — including inappropriate behaviour, sexually explicit images or offering benefits in exchange for sexual favours.

But the draft is not limited to the workplace alone. It also attempts to protect a woman’s rights within the traditional family structure, and even allows women to seek compensation after divorce.

What does the draft amendment say about women’s rights in the workplace?

Under the proposal, employers are banned from stating gender preferences in job ads or asking female applicants about their marital and pregnancy status. Employers are also prohibited from firing or reducing a woman’s salary if she chooses to get married or have a baby.

While previous laws simply stated that sexual harassment against women was prohibited, the proposal lays down a clear definition of what qualifies as ‘sexual harassment’. This includes subjecting women to verbal expressions with sexual connotations or any other inappropriate sexual behaviour without their consent, Reuters reported. The draft also prohibits offering benefits in exchange for sex.

What about women’s rights at home?

Extending to the domestic sphere, the new regulations also clarify the duties of both the husband and the wife within the traditional family structure. In case of divorce, women have the right to ask for compensation if they believe they have been shouldering more duties at home, the draft states.

This comes after a court in Beijing granted a housewife a 50,000 yuan payout from her husband for five years of unpaid labour. The landmark case sparked a nationwide debate on the value of domestic work earlier this year.

The draft also says that harassing women under the guise of being in a relationship, or after a relationship ends will be prohibited. It also bans practices that could be mentally manipulative — this includes ‘female morality classes’, where women are ‘brainwashed’ into believing that they are inferior to their partners, Communist Party-owned newspaper, Beijing News, reported.

Why now?

In recent years, China has been widely criticised for doing little to protect sexual harassment survivors and attempting to suppress the #MeToo movement in its nascent stages. The country has witnessed a growing debate on crimes against women as more domestic violence and sexual harassment cases have been reported in recent years.

China’s #MeToo movement began in 2018, when a former student of Shanghai University of Finance and Economics accused her professor of sexually harassing her. He was fired from the university, following which several other women were encouraged to come forward with their complaints.

Most recently, Chinese tennis pro-Peng Shuai’s sparked a storm on social media after she alleged that she was forced into a sexual relationship by China’s former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, after his retirement from power in 2017. Soon after she shared her explosive allegation on China’s social media forum WeChat, she went missing. After her sudden disappearance caused international furore, she reappeared in a few offline media videos. However, Zhang got away unscathed.

Meanwhile, gender-based discrimination in the workplace is rampant across China. Many women have long faced discrimination based on their marital status. According to a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW), gender gap, the lack of anti-discrimination laws and the two child policy were behind this phenomenon.

But some women fear that China’s new three-child policy will only worsen the problem, CNN reported.

According to the HRW report, many Chinese companies are reluctant to pay salaries during maternity leave. As per Chinese law, women are entitled to about 98 days of maternity leave. Employers are mandated to pay maternity insurance to ensure that women receive a monthly allowance from the government fund if they give birth.

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Women without children or with a single child are seen as a liability as they could potentially avail of maternity leave benefits, the report states.

So what’s next?

The draft proposal was presented before China’s top legislative body on Monday for deliberation. The discussion is expected to continue until at least Friday, following which the draft will be voted upon.

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