The dilemma of work and family for rural women in China: how do government and enterprises address it?

By: Juliana Sun, Maggie Sun, Weiyi Wang, Xiangjun Ye

Among the rolling hills of Ceheng County in Guizhou province, China, resides the ethnic minority group of Bouyei. A Bouyei woman named Li Dingmei traveled over 1,500 kilometers to work in Zhejiang Province when she was only 14 years old. After giving birth to her daughter, she went back to her homeland, Banwan Village in Ceheng County.


However, surrounded by endless mountains, Banwan offers limited job opportunities. Therefore, there will be no source of income if Li stays in this village. But Li, on the other hand, desires so badly to accompany her daughter in their hometown. Hence, Li Dingmei is trapped in the dilemma of choosing between higher wages in developed urban areas and spending more time with her daughter.


Juxtaposition between work and family


Compared with the 5.3% poverty rate in urban areas, the rural poverty rate is 17.2%, which is more than three times higher than in urban areas (Jensen, 2019). Furthermore, people live in rural areas have a lower income than urban household. In China, the disparity between the annual rural and urban household income is 26,703 RMB. Low wages and high poverty rates cause underdevelopment in rural areas, so it is difficult for residents to find a job with a satisfying wage. The limited quality jobs then become the push factor propelling people to migrate to cities.


Specifically, women are the dominant force in migration waves to cities. In Latin America, the population of female migrants from rural to urban areas is exceeding that of male migrants. In Colombia, for example, 56% of all migrants to Bogata, the capital city, were female. A similar phenomenon was observed in Asia as well. The study of migration to urban areas in South Korea shows that female migrants outnumbered male migrants, especially in the migration to Seoul (Khoo et al. 1250-1253). On the other hand, women play a significant role in handling main household tasks around the world. Data reflects that women take more than 50% responsibility in taking care of children and doing house chores (Brenan, 2020). Therefore, women face the dilemma between choosing work and family.


By developing the rural economy, more job opportunities will be generated. Thus women would not have to move to cities for more job options and could stay to take care of their families. Worldwide examples demonstrate that rural economic development enables women to obtain jobs in their communities. The International Labor Organization launched a community-based training program in Africa named “The TREE program”. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, TREE combined technical training with business training and aided those trained women to have sustainable and quality jobs in their communities (2013). After having quality jobs and stable income in their hometowns, the women could stay at their hometowns to look after families.

The mountains and villages in Ceheng County. Photo by Juliana Sun

The work and family dilemma women are facing in Guizhou, China


Under the global context, the Bouyei women in Guizhou, China, are also encountering the same dilemma of juxtaposition between work and family. The retail shop owner in Banwan Village, Li Dingmei, was struggling with this dilemma. Bouyei women are the breadwinner of the family, while men work in construction sites, keep bees, and plant eucalyptus trees. However, such works are not well paid and stable. The burden of raising a family then falls on the shoulders of Bouyei women. Unfortunately, there are not enough quality job opportunities available in their hometown due to the urban and rural imbalances. These women can only find works with meager wages. Hence, going out to big cities as a migrant worker with higher wages seems to be the only option.


Even though the income is much higher in cities than in their hometown, many of these women desire to stay in their hometown to take care of their family. Working in a local restaurant, Wei Jingchun, a mother of two daughters, said: “I’m worried that the childcare staff will not look after my daughters well because they have many other kids to take care of. I can better take care of her if I take her with me”. Wei then went on saying, “I think mother’s love is indispensable. A child cannot live a life without her mother by her side to care for her,” Wei has a strong desire to stay although opportunities in rural areas are suboptimal.


In addition to the need of taking care of children, women in Ceheng choose to stay at their hometowns because they want to look after the elders. Wei Yongqin, who works in a silk fabric workshop, said “all my siblings went out to work, but I’m worried about my mother’s health and fear that she cannot take care of herself, so I want to stay at my hometown to look after her. “


Efforts of government and enterprises


To address the dilemma faced by the rural women, government agencies and enterprises are exploring different possible solutions. The local government, for example, introduces enterprises to do businesses in Ceheng County. They also develop special industries that are tailored to the local conditions. These measures provide new quality employment opportunities as well as vocational training for the locals, which improved the economic conditions in Ceheng. Thus, the dilemma that the local women face will be solved.


In 2020, the local government in Banwan Village of Ceheng levied more than 33 hectare of farmlands and introduced enterprises to manage the use of the farmland. Farmers not only got the rent of 600 yuan per hectare every year but also are recruited to do the agricultural works. Among the 40 farmers who are working in the farmland, half of them are women. These levied farmlands provide women another source of stable job as well as extra income.

The farmlands in Ceheng. Photo by Juliana Sun

In addition to introducing enterprises to do businesses, the government and enterprises also develop new industries tailored to local conditions. Qisong Forestry Development Company, a furniture material factory in Ceheng County, takes advantage of the local geographical conditions, planting eucalyptus on mountains as their raw material. 57% of the workers are women. Miss Wang, a manager of the factory, explained that the factory give preference for poor job seekers when hiring and offer free vocational training with financial aid for the admitted. According to Miss Wang, the minimum wage of the factory is 3,000 RMB and the average wage is 4,500 RMB, which is higher than the average wage within the county and about the same amount as the wages earned in cities that the locals normally go to. Therefore, Qisong Forestry Development Company offers quality job opportunities for the local women.


Women working in the furniture material factory. Photo by Juliana Sun

Furthermore, government and enterprises also use the traditional culture of Bouyei ethnic minority to develop new industry and offer new job opportunities. Dashan Xiaoke, a social enterprise in Ceheng, has organized the restoration and renovation of the dilapidated Bouyei traditional houses, as well as establishing a new tourist spot around that area. Dashan Xiaoke rented this area from the former residents and hired them to do the renovation and construction work. Today, around 10 houses are used as featured homestay, while others are currently a restaurant, a bar, a retail store and a small Fairview Place, etc. Its development offers new employment opportunities for the locals. Some of the women, like Wei Jingchun, from the villages worked in the restaurant to do the cooking for tourists, while others work in the featured homestays.


The dilapidated Bouyei traditional village has now becomes a tourist spot. Photo by Juliana Sun

Bouyei traditional clothes have its ethnic group’s unique characteristics and style, and the local government of Ceheng has launched a vocational training project called Jinxiu Project to teach women making traditional Bouyei clothes, bags or beddings. The government also collaborates with enterprises to provide embroidery workshops and textile machines for Bouyei women to do embroider works. The traditional Bouyei clothes that these female embroiders make are sold as products. This has offered the local Bouyei women job opportunities and source of income, thus helping improve their economic situation.

The embroidery workshops and textile machines. Photo by Juliana Sun

Though these projects have achieved promising results, inadequacies still remain. These projects are still in their nascent stage, so they did not develop a complete industrial chain. They encountered issues including the shrinking demand for labor, low wages, and unstable source of income. For instance, the initial plan for the farmland project was recruiting 200 to 300 farmers, but now the farm only recruited 50 farmers. The embroidery workshop in Banwan Village, on the other hand, do not run well too. A middle-aged villager Yongqin, who owns a loom in the embroidery workshop in Banwan, has confessed that she had only one order from the workshop, so she has to find other works to help out with family expenses.


Projecting into the future


It’s a long process from exploration to harvest. In recent years, China’s rural economic development has been on an upward trajectory, but many projects are still in their early stages and need time to further develop.


With the combined efforts from government agencies and enterprises, new quality jobs were created, and vocational training was provided. This has developed the rural economy, thus solving the dilemma of choosing work and family for the local women. As what Li Zhengfang, the founder of Dashan Xiaoke, said: “future is in rural areas, and opportunities are also in rural areas”.




Brenan, M. (2020, January 29). Women still Handle main household tasks in U.S.

Jensen, L. (Ed.). (2019). (rep.). The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019. United Nations. Retrieved from

Khoo, S.-E., Smith, P. C., & Fawcett, J. T. (1984). Migration of Women to Cities:

The Asian Situation in Comparative Perspective. International Migration Review, 18(4), 1247–1263.

United Nations Industrial Development Organization. (2013). (rep.). RURAL TRANSFORMATION Promoting livelihood security by adding value to local resources. Retrieved from

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