Litigating representative cases to push for women’s rights

The Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University has successfully been litigating "representative cases" that carry great implications for Chinese women’s struggles in the current socio-economic context. Because China is in the midst of rapid economic development, women face new types of challenges to their rights. Rather than litigating every case brought to its attention, the center concentrates its energies on those that address contemporary women’s issues and set a precedent for future cases. This way, the center has been able to elicit large-scale social impact with a small staff of full time lawyers. Furthermore, these significant cases give the media a focal point to broadcast current women’s struggles such as sexual harassment and domestic abuse. The center also has close connections to prominent government officials who voice the center’s work in the People’s Congress as well as in the media.

The center has processed over 20,000 inquiries and litigated over 60 major representative lawsuits. Its constituents range from poor women, migrant women workers, retired female officials, professional women, to victims of domestic abuse and sexual harassment. Among the issues that the center has focused on include early retirement of female government officials, discriminatory gynecology examinations as a precondition to employment, and the rights of married women.

In order to make services accessible to a large number of women in need, the center also answers a large quantity of legal inquiries. In the past, major issues have included divorce law, labor law, and gender discrimination in all spheres of life. The center does outreach through public awareness campaigns including making presentations at local labor unions, factories, and other women’s organizations.

The Center has successfully won a number of landmark cases. For instance, in February of 1997, 25 migrant women workers brought a case to the center because their boss refused to pay wages for over two years even after being supposedly reprimanded by the local labor rights investigation committee. The center filed a lawsuit against the company first with the local primary courts (whose ruling did not hold the top company official responsible) and then with the intermediary people’s courts. In fall of 1999, the intermediate People’s Court ruled in favor of the migrant women and demanded the company to pay 160,000 in indemnities and also held the company officials responsible. This case is only one of many that have sparked national and international attention. The influence of these cases allows the center to make policy suggestions to law-making bodies.

One of the challenges that the center faces is finding a way to assess their impact on policy making since it is hard to isolate the sources of legal reforms. However, because of the sheer level of publicity the center receives both nationally and internationally, it has been able to exert pressure on the Chinese government to either implement already existing current laws or reform them.

The Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University was founded 1995 as a pubic interest law firm that conducts research on women’s issues and provides pro-bono legal services to Chinese women of all backgrounds. The Center has five departments: administrative, legal inquiry, litigation, research, and internet correspondence. The Center serves as a model for other NGO’s in China through the unique way in which it selects is cases and builds a solid foundation of public support from establishing ties with the media, government delegates, and law professionals.


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