Gender and development People

Posted December 2000

Visibility of the role of rural women through an analysis of gender-disaggregated census data

Marie Randriamamonjy
Chief, Women in Development Service
Women and Population Division
FAO, Rome


The first National Census in China introduced interesting innovation by including consideration of socio-economic factors along with the classical data on agricultural holding and agricultural production. Gender-disaggregated data are available in key areas such as education and labour force. They reveal a trend towards feminization and ageing of rural population. This preoccupying situation is compounded by a still high rate of illiteracy among women, their low access to educational facilities and to off-farm activities.

Basic information is provided on social infrastructure. But the results of the census are far from being fully exploited and more in-depth studies and analyses are needed to capture the gender dimension of rural and agricultural population in China. Some recommendations are offered to improve the agricultural census process and methods for a better understanding of the dynamics of rural society and subsequent accurate planning of a more sustainable agricultural and socio-economic development of rural areas.


Since 1975 at the First World Conference on Women in Mexico, and later on the whole series of global conferences on social issues, stressed the importance of generating, disseminating and using gender-disaggregated data and information as key elements for development planning and evaluation. These actions contribute, in particular, towards making the roles and situations of women more visible and hopefully more recognized and valued.

The First National Census of Agriculture in China is a major undertaking, unprecedented by its size and extent in terms of number of items addressed, the impact of which could go beyond the boundaries of the country itself. One of the most interesting aspects is the investigation on the basic conditions of rural economy and social development.

Among the 10 main items addressed by the Census, two are directly related to the socio-economic context for agricultural activities. It concerns the rural labour force and the community environment and infrastructure. The rural market and finance issues are also addressed to reflect the volume and the flow of economic activities supporting agricultural production.

This paper analyses the following aspects:

  1. What are the main results of the agricultural census in China from the gender perspectives;
  2. What are the areas which are not addressed by the exercise while they are of key importance for rural women's empowerment or gender mainstreaming;
  3. Recommendations on how to improve the agricultural census process and methodology to better capture the reality of rural women in general.

1. Main results of the chinese agricultural census

From the gender perspective, the most interesting innovation of this first agricultural census conducted in 1997, is certainly the inclusion of the consideration of the basic conditions of rural economy and some pertinent socio-economic factors. Undoubtedly, policy makers and planners can find in the huge amount of data, useful and accurate elements for decision-making. This effort is even more valuable given the fact that, by definition, traditional agricultural censuses collect data on the agricultural holding with a focus on production, more specifically on harvests, livestock and agricultural inputs, leaving aside the human factors.

As a basic concept, it has to be realized that mainstreaming gender in statistics is not an end by itself. It is a tool to combat poverty and hunger and aims at empowering the poor, in particular women, ethnic minorities and indigenous populations. The analysis of the main findings of the agricultural census in China will then be carried out in that broader perspective, underlining the gender dimension of it. It will cover in particular two facets: participation in decision-making and access to productive resources. The list of tables where data disaggregated by sex can be found directly is given in Annex 1.

Basic characteristics of the rural population in China

The following are the main socio-demographic features of the Chinese rural society. They will help in the understanding of the main issues as they relate to gender perspectives.

In general, data are collected for 3 types of agricultural enterprises:

Household holdings represent 99.8% of all holdings, compared to 0.2% for non-holding (state, collective, cooperative, private and individual, joint venture). Therefore, the main interest of this document is on household holdings where the majority of women can be found. However, whenever needed, reference will be made to the other categories of units.

Table 1
All holdings - basic characteristics
Total number of holdings 193 445 894
Persons engaged in economic activities
% Male
% Female
528 805 904
278 420 916
250 384 988

Points from Table 1:

1.2 Global gender perspective in selected economic, agricultural and non- agricultural activities

From the table of Annex II the following remarks are put forward to show the main characteristics of the Chinese rural society:

1.3 Education

This aspect is quite well covered by the agricultural census. Actually gender-disaggregated data are available in the following areas:

Table 2
Rural households: number of persons aged 7 years and over engaged in economic activities by sex and educational level
Illiterate/ semi-literate
Primary school
Junior middle school
Senior middle school
Special secondary school
College and above
Total 78 674 621 236 655 197 28 493 722 3 218 190 875 146 561 479 490
Male 26 740 546 114 864 004 130 651 492 20 289 688 2 221 043 684 668 295 451 441
Female 51 934 075 121 791 193 82 911 122 8 204 034 997 147 190 478 266 028 049
% male/female 51.5% 94.3% 157.6% 247.3% 222.7% 359.4% 111.1%
% total female 19.5% 45.8% 31.2% 3.1% 0.4% 0.1%  

Points from Table 2:

Among the population engaged in agriculture:

Data on "all holdings" show that the absolute number of males is superior to the number of females. They represent respectively 53% and 47% of the economically active population.

Table 3
Household holdings: Number of persons aged 7 years and over engaged in economic activities by sex and educational level
Illiterate/ semi-literate
Primary school
Junior middle school
Senior middle school
Special secondary school
College and above
Total 518 961 350 76 767 902 222 933 417 191 980 397 23 998 573 2 646 670 634 391
Male 272 181 013 26 033 663 108 005 924 119 236 457 17 473 075 1 877 783 503 327
% of category 52.4% 33.9% 48.4% 62.1% 72.8% 70.9% 79.3%
Female 246 780 337 50 734 239 114 927 493 72 743 940 6 525 498 768 887 131 064
% of category 47.6% 66.1% 51.6% 37.9% 27.2% 29.1% 20.7

Points from Table 3:

In the non household holdings, about 8.5 million persons are engaged in economic activities. The percentage of males is about 64% and 36% for females. The proportion of illiterates is markedly lower 8% against 15%. Here also the number of females who have received higher education is very low (0.9%).

Table 4
Non-household holdings: Number of persons engaged in agricultural activities by type of technician and sex
  Total Primary Junior Senior Total Primary Junior Senior Total Primary Junior Senior
Total 401 357 278 033 101 305 22 019 320 975 218 243 84 129 18 603 80 382 59 790 17 176 3 416
Percent   69.3% 25.2% 5.5% 80.0% 54.4% 21.0% 4.6% 20.0% 14.9% 4.3% 0.9%

Points from Table 4:

1.3.1 General consideration of the Education level of female economically active worker

A study carried out in 1992 by the Women's studies Institute of all China Women's federation shows higher figures than in tables 2 and 3: 30.9% for women illiterate and 11.5% for men. Disparities between rural and urban areas are also high. The same study reveals that there is a difference of 32.2% between the number of literate urban and rural dwellers in the age-group 20-24 and of 46.7% in the age group 40-44.

A study carried out by UNESCO (2000) in the 9 most populated areas in the World shows that in China women remain the major educating force in society. It concluded also that there is a strong evidence of the "exclusion of women from mainstream education due to several factors including the religious, cultural and social ideologies which affect women's empowerment". They are still facing several barriers in traditional, patriarchal societies: many practices and beliefs ignore the rights of women and girls, principally the right to education.

1.3.2 Structure of the labour force and employment

In addition to basic characteristics by region, the Chinese agricultural census provides detailed agricultural labour force data, disaggregated by sex, into two main categories:

Table 5
Household holdings: Number of persons aged 7 years and over engaged in economic activities by age and sex group
7-15 years
16-17 years
18-25 years
26-35 years
36-45 years
46-50 years
51-55 years
50-60 years
61 & over
Total 518 961 350 5 748 391 13 678 836 108 382 219 149 065 282 104 108 892 43 965 399 30 317 237 25 796 299 37 898 795
Male 272 181 013 2 412 367 6 606 804 56 281 603 77 337 107 53 684 680 22 898 738 16 343 403 14 458 338 22 157 973
% of total   52.4% 42.0% 48.3% 51.9% 51.6% 52.1% 53.9% 56.0% 58.5%
Female 246 780 337 3 336 024 7 072 032 52 100 616 71 728 175 50 424 212 21 066 661 13 973 834 11 337 961 15 740 822
% of total 47.6% 58.0% 51.7% 48.1% 48.1% 48.4% 47.9% 46.1% 44.0% 41.5%

Points from Table 5:

Table 6
Rural households: Basic information on hired workers by region
Total number of hired workers 11 165 859
Number of households with hired workers 2 448 875
Average number of hired workers per household 4.6
Hired workers
Permanent workers
Occasional workers
Total Female % Female Total Female % Female
6 693 648 2 479 273 37.0% 4 472 211 1 588 064 35.5%

Points from Table 6:

Table 7
Non-agricultural town and township enterprises by number of persons engaged by sex
Number of enterprises
Persons engaged
1 397 267
52 995 516
34 400 923
18 594 593

Points from Table 7:

The above data confirm the situation illustrated earlier as regards the higher proportion of women engaged in on-farm agricultural activities.

1.3.3 Education and health facilities

As regards the educational facilities, the current situation reflects the tremendous efforts developed by China during the last decades for universal access to education: 64.2% of rural population have access to primary school and 1.6% to middle school. According to a World Bank Study the drop out rate among girls decreased from 20 to 0 percent of the age group in primary school and from 46 to 35 percent in the secondary schools. Moreover, 26.6% of population have access to kindergarten and nursery which is a relatively good performance and facilitates a great deal the life and working conditions of women in rural areas.

Health care infrastructure is good as 68.2% of villages have a health center and 76.7% have a rural doctor. The average is 1.5 doctor per village.

1.3.4 Social infrastructure and equipment

The majority of the villages (96%) and of rural population (97.6%) have access to electricity. 42.3% of villages are within the distance range of 2.5 km from an urban center and 22.1% in the range 5-10 km. 87.4% of them are accessible by road vehicles.

Only 17.4% of the villages have access to tap water. Therefore, 67% of the households are using wells for their domestic needs and drinking water. As regards the energy for cooking and heating, 68% of households are using firewood.

II. Areas which are not or are insufficiently addressed by the Chinese agricultural census

Because of the scope and objectives of the agricultural census, as well as its coverage, there are some unavoidable limitations in the list of data and information which can be collected. Cross-reference or cross tabulation with data from other sources are very often required to obtain meaningful information.

However, better utilization of data from the agricultural census could or should also contribute to the improvement of the knowledge base in the following areas:

2.1 Gender and rural poverty

FAO recognizes that two areas remain insufficiently covered by current statistics. They are: food security and the eradication of poverty for which the following indicators are urgently needed:

Some complementary measures, such as time-use survey and household resource allocation, are recommended to ensure a better coverage of the above aspects.

In China, human poverty has decreased significantly in the last four and half decades with some slowing down of the process in late 1980s and early 1990s. However, the impact of poverty reduction policy became greater by mid-1996 when the people living below the poverty line had fallen to 65 million from 94 million in 1991. It would be interesting to have data disaggregated by sex on the rural poor, as well as on the level of rural incomes and rural wages.

2.2 Women's political participation

According to statistics published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women in China hold 21.8% in the Lower House in 1997-1998. In the government, there are 6.1% women at ministerial level and 3.9% at sub-ministerial level. In total, the female representation in the national legislative bodies was 4.3% in 1994.

This type of information is not meant to be included in the agricultural census. Nevertheless it is important to know how, or to what extent, women participate in the political life of the country and in the decision-making process at the highest level. Of key importance also is their participation, both in local government and in rural organizations and data on this would be more relevant for the agricultural censuses.

2.3 Women's social and legal status

The Government of China has made great efforts to improve the legal environment conducive to women's empowerment. Legal provisions include marriage laws, the inheritance law, the labour law, the law of maternal and childcare and the women's workers and employees labour protection regulations.

The status of Chinese women has been raising steadily in terms of their role in the family and in society and in their participation in the management of national affairs.

2.4 Access to resources

Access to resources is an important element of empowerment. Men and women tend to have different access to inputs and production factors and tend to benefit differently from the output of, and income from, their labour. This important aspect is constantly overlooked in permanent and periodic data collection efforts and should receive due consideration because of its impact on productivity, income and bargaining power within the household. Resources include: land, credit, training and extension services, technology and labour.

2.5 Land use

The agricultural census (abstract) gives very interesting macro data on household holdings use of lands by type of agricultural activities, by type of permanent crops and type of woodland. More in-depth analysis is needed to determine how the responsibilities and benefits are allocated within the household.

2.6 Crop planting

Here also a detailed farming system analysis along with time-use surveys and seasonal calendar study by sex would help understand the dynamics of the production activities, the labour force and resource allocations and ultimately the distribution of the benefits.

2.7 Application of agricultural science and technology

Additional surveys or analysis of existing data are needed to have information disaggregated by sex.

It is well-known that access to technology is heavily gender-biased and has a bearing on household member's productivity.

2.8 Livestock and poultry

Usually there is a strict division of labour within the household both for the type of activity and the care given to animals. From the questionnaire and the results of the census it is difficult to know if the traditional pattern applies in China: large animals for men and small animals for women and children. They do not show either what type of operations are performed by whom in a specific production activity. Equally important is the knowledge of the decision-making process in all steps: choice of the activity and technology to be used, marketing, distribution and use of the income.

Such data are needed for the design of a more client-oriented extension programme and of a participatory agricultural development policy.

III. Recommendations on how to improve the agricultural census from gender perspectives

The Government of China in undertaking this first Agricultural Census has laid down the foundation of a modern statistical system, which will allow the formulation of a long-term rural development strategy. It has adopted international criteria, definitions and practices which were adapted to the national rural statistical survey system.

The following recommendations are offered to facilitate the full exploitation of existing data both from the agricultural census and from other sources.

In general, by stipulating a minimum size for the traditional agricultural holding, the agricultural census does not provide an accurate estimate of women's contribution to development since many women are engaged in these small-scale production units. Therefore, the census fails to mirror the reality of the agricultural sector by excluding small farmers and classifying small farm households as non-agricultural. This limitation is common to many agricultural censuses.

Including a gender perspective in the agricultural census will bring into light some prevailing social and cultural patterns of agricultural and rural development, which have impacts on the livelihood of households and their internal work distribution and resource allocation. It will also highlight the interactions between various stakeholders, while helping to identify the causes and effects of production activities.

Along these lines, FAO recommends a five steps approach in data production:

  1. Identification of gender issues and their implications for social improvement;
  2. Identification of gender relevant data;
  3. Reviewing existing sources;
  4. Improving existing sources and developing new data collection programmes;
  5. Data compilation, analysis, presentation and dissemination by specific user group.
Table 8
Demographic and employment characteristics in the FAO Programme for the World Census of Agriculture 2000
Reference category
Essential items
Proposed items
Holder's household
Number of household members
Household members
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Main occupation
  • Whether engaged inmore than one occupation
  • Marital status
  • Education
  • Whether economically active or not
  • Whether any work done on holding during the year
  • Whether permanent or occasional agricultural on holding
Agricultural workers other than members of holder's household None
  • Whether permanent agricultural workers during year
  • Whether occasional agricultural workers employed during year
  • Number of permanent agricultural workers - male (skilled or not)
  • Number of permanent agricultural workers - female (skilled or not)
Source: FAO (1995)

In most cases the thrust of the development planning and information system has been on physical growth of goods and services and overall welfare. Social concerns like the role of women in the development process have largely been given a secondary status in preparing national programmes dealing with raising the standard of living and productivity. It needs to be realized that:


This agricultural census in China is very timely in this period of opening policy paralleled with economic reform initiated by the Government, in particular in the agricultural sector. Including gender dimension in the new policies initiated in the late 1990s, has the potential to increase the economic and social returns of the huge investment in that sector.

It offers a sound knowledge base of the current status of agriculture and rural development in China. In addition to the information on agricultural production and production factors, data on socio-economic parameters are very useful to understand the overall environment in which agricultural activities are taking place. Gender-disaggregated data are provided for key areas such as education and labour force. Indicators on access to basic infrastructure, in particular in the household, give also an overview of living conditions in rural areas. Besides, the overall results of the census certainly provide a good scientific basis for further research or may serve as valuable elements for the formulation and planning of agricultural and rural development programmes. As regards gender, they will facilitate a better targeting of the audience of training and extension activities. However, some additional surveys and studies (such as socio-anthropological studies, values and attitude surveys, market analysis and feasibility studies, access to land and credit) are needed to get a fuller picture of the gender dimension of development, using the foundation already laid. The suggested improvement as regards gender perspectives can build upon it to capture the reality of rural areas while meeting at the same time the international standard. The planned arrangement for the follow-up to this first agricultural census is a guarantee for the institutionalization of the system with the full participation of the government's leaders at various administrative levels down to the grass root organizations. It is expected that gender perspectives will permeate the process all the way through with the necessary adaptation. Actually, the identification of gender issues for statistical treatment requires ongoing and permanent dialogue between producers and users.

The Governments of China should be aware of the fact that by addressing the issue of gender equality, it will also touch upon those of labour force dynamics and development, productivity and poverty. Furthermore, improving gender statistics is part of a strategy to create an enabling environment for improving food security and achieving sustainable development.


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Annex I

Readily available data in the Chinese agricultural census disaggregated by sex:

Annex II

Overview of the structure of rural population per category of activity: Persons aged 7 years or over engaged in economic, agricultural and non-agricultural activities
% male
% female
Rural households 561 479 490 295 451 441 266 028 049 52.6% 47.4%
Non-agricultural HHs 42 518 140 23 270 428 19 247 712 54.7% 45.3%
Ag. HHs/HH holdings 518 961 350 272 181 013 246 780 337 52.4% 47.6%
Non-household holdings 9 844 554 6 239 903 3 604 651 63.4% 36.6%
All holdings 528 805 904 278 420 916 250 384 988 52.7% 47.3%
Household holdings 424 995 486 203 602 227 221 393 259 47.9% 52.1%
Non-household holdings 8 510 934 5 437 908 3 073 026 63.9% 36.1%
All holdings 433 506 420 209 040 135 224 466 285 48.2% 51.8%
Rural households 136 484 004 91 849 214 44 634 790 67.3% 32.7%
Non-agricultural HHs 45 518 140 23 270 428 19 247 712 54.7% 45.3%
Ag. HHs/HH holdings 93 965 864 68 578 786 25 387 078 73.0% 27.0%
Non-household holdings 1 333 620 801 995 531 625 60/1% 39.9%
All holdings 95 299 484 69 380 781 25 918 703 72.8% 27.2%
Source: First agricultural census in China

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