Notes from the Field

Integrating China’s Migrant Women in Sanxiang

June 8, 2011

Like many manufacturing hubs in the Pearl River Delta region, Sanxiang Town in Guangdong Province has a large migrant population. Though they make up more than half of the total population, they are not considered official residents, due to the hukou system in China that ties residence status and many social services to place of birth.

A laborer in China

Research shows that women migrants in China are more vulnerable than men, as they are subject to gender-based discrimination and inequities rising from non-resident status.

In areas with large migrant populations, this dynamic presents a multitude of challenges – from frustration among migrant workers who contribute to the local economy but are treated as second class citizens, to anxiety among residents and local authorities that the influx of migrants will disrupt the social fabric of their community and strain limited local resources.

Beginning in 1999, The Asia Foundation and Sanxiang Women’s Federation, with funding from the Levi Strauss Foundation, began supporting better integration of migrants in Sanxiang through a community-based one-stop-shop model. One-stop-shop models abound – from business licensing to open government information – the idea being that it is both more efficient for governments to provide and easier for users to access a range of related services and information in one location. Recently, this model has been adopted internationally for purposes of assisting migrant workers. For example, in Europe, a number of migrant receiving areas – from large cities like Lisbon and Paris to small towns in England – have established migrant support centers where migrants can access an array of services such as registration, employment, housing, health, education, banking, and recreation. Some centers are government-run and actually provide official services and benefits, while others are operated by non-governmental organizations and provide information on where and how to access such services and benefits.

In China, our community-based one-stop-shop for migrant women was one of the first of its kind. A migrant women’s center was established under the Women’s Federation to serve as the focal point for delivery of services most needed by migrant women, such as: HIV and reproductive health education; vocational skills training; counseling on marriage, family, and urban integration issues; and social activities, including a newspaper highlighting issues of relevance to migrants and cultural events by a migrant women’s performance troupe.

Services were available to both men and women, but we focused on migrant women because research showed they are more vulnerable than men, as they are subject to gender-based discrimination and inequities rising from non-resident status. For example, health bureau statistics from Dongguan, a city with a large migrant population, report that the maternal morbidity rate of migrant women in 2009 was 33.5/100,000, while the maternal morbidity rate of women with local hukou was 5.8/100,000. Thus, maternal morbidity among migrant women is 5.7 times higher than that of non-migrant women. In addition, according to research commissioned by the China Gender Facility for Research and Advocacy, there is low enrollment in social insurance among migrant women because migrant women find it more difficult than either non-migrant women or migrant men to meet requirements related to continuous insurance premium payments. As migrants, they may move often in search of employment opportunities; and as women, marriage and pregnancy often interrupt their work. The Sanxiang migrant women’s center has helped to even out some of the imbalances facing migrant women and made it easier for migrant women to integrate into their new urban communities.

Moreover, the project has encouraged the local government to assume responsibility for the migrant women’s center. We engaged local government and other key stakeholders throughout the process of establishing the migrant women’s center and providing services to migrants. For example, the center consulted and involved local health and family planning bureaus to develop and deliver HIV and reproductive health training sessions and public education campaigns. Over the course of the project, the local government began funding the Women’s Federation to operate the migrant women’s center and various local government departments (health, family planning, labor) participated in and co-organized training and public awareness events for migrants. One key achievement was engaging the labor bureau to begin providing vocational skills training to migrants; prior to the project, the labor bureau only provided such training to residents. This year, several years after the project concluded, The Asia Foundation revisited Sanxiang and was pleased to find that the migrant women’s center continues to provide most of the services launched under the project with funding from the local government and other community stakeholders. For example, the local branch of China Mobile funds the migrant newspaper. The migrant women’s performance troupe sustains itself by charging fees for performances; the troupe conducts approximately 50-60 performances per year.

The Sanxiang project was a pioneering effort in China at a time when most communities, and even migrant workers themselves, accepted that migrants were outsiders without claim to community services and resources. The approach of fostering a sense of belonging and integrating migrants into host communities is an increasingly relevant one, given the growing trend among younger migrants of permanently settling in urban areas, as well as the Chinese government’s aim of increasing urbanization and domestic consumption, including by “steadily promoting rural residents becoming urban residents,” announced in March 2011 as part of China’s 12th Five Year Plan.

An important next step would be for the government to grant migrants access to the same public services as urban residents. To achieve this, policymakers should examine Sanxiang and other such models for holistic and user-friendly service delivery. The Sanxiang model has the potential to be refined and replicated throughout China, as mass organizations such as the Women’s Federation are located throughout the country and can serve as a conduit through which local governments can better support and integrate migrant women. Ultimately, the integration of migrants into host communities is critical not only for the well-being of migrants, but also to ensure a cohesive society and sustainable development that benefits from the contributions of all society’s members.

Nancy Y. Kim is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in China. She can be reached at nkim@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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