, VI Conference of BRICS Initiative of Critical Agrarian Studies

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From ‘Left Behind’ to Leader: Female Leadership in Food Sovereignty and Local Governance in China
Li Zhang

Last modified: 2018-12-14


China’s capitalist reforms rest on massive outmigration of peasants to the cities, while elders, children, and women responsible for their care are “left behind” in the countryside. The plight of these “left behind” populations have become focus of much scholarship, showing that women are the pillar of these populations, and the waves of migrant workers results in the “feminization” of agriculture. However, I argue we must pay more attention to the manner that rural women are not merely passive victims during these transformations. Building on ethnographic research in Guangxi, Henan, and Jilin provinces from 2013 to 2018, and drawing on critical gender studies, I shift focus of scholarship on rural women from “left behind” to “leaders” in various forms of resistance to displacement, marginalization, and discrimination. I highlight how the ongoing food safety crisis in China create conditions for peasant women to increase control over production and increase their income through sales of organic food; establishing cooperatives and other “alternative food networks”, largely supported by groups of scholars, among whom women feature prominently. Second, I demonstrate how recent transformations in local governance also create conditions for women to take up positions of power and authority, particularly in new institutions focused on care-work, and social protest. Yet, these female leaders are still subjected to the “double burden” of advancing their agricultural, community, and/or political work alongside extensive unpaid domestic labor, and pervasive sexism and discrimination. Still, shifting focus to women’s role as leaders contributes to a transitional strategy for transformative justice.


China; urbanization; left behind; gender studies; leadership

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