Guo Jianmei: Patron of the Weak

  • March 12, 2007
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Guo Jianmei: Patron of the Weak

Guo Jianmei (left) on a trip to investigate the situation of rural women in Yunnan. [China Today]

The Women's Legal Research and Service Center of the Law School of Peking University was founded in a hotel room in Zhongguancun one cold winter's night in 1995. It was China's first non-profit-making, non-governmental organization specializing in women's legal aid. Since then, the center has become an influential non-governmental organization safeguarding the rights and interests of women. Guo Jianmei, one of the center's founders, likens its work to "Pushing a heavily loaded cart uphill against the wind."

Laws Can Be Trusted

Guo Jianmei was born in rural Henan Province. As both her parents are teachers, she grew up on campus. Guo regards herself as a simple person. Sometimes she feels "foolish"at having given up her steady, undemanding job as government official in order to run a non-governmental organization. But, as she says, "Somebody has to do it." In 1989, Guo participated in drafting the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests. Her investigations into the living conditions of Chinese women took her to more than 20 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. She was shocked at her findings. In 1995, Guo Jianmei attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. When an overseas lawyer raised the question of whether there were non-governmental organizations in China specializing in women's legal aid, there was an uncomfortable silence. It brought home to Guo Jianmei exactly how little legal recourse Chinese women have.

Guo Jianmei had failed miserably in her earlier practice acting as agent in lawsuits for women, possibly because she underestimated the complexity of the issue. She explains, "A lawyer providing free legal aid to women is often regarded with contempt. But this only strengthened my resolve."

The first legal aid case Guo Jianmei took on was that of a woman from Jiangsu Province. In the course of a visit to Beijing to appeal a case, she was seriously injured in a road accident. She suffered multiple fractures and lost an eye. When Guo Jianmei accompanied her to court to apply for compensation, the judge drove them out of his office, saying, "What kind of a lawyer are you, and why are you acting as her attorney? Have you no other cases? How much is she paying you?" Guo Jianmei was incensed. She eventually won the case, but the woman was not awarded fair compensation.

Guo Jianmei has a quietly intelligent and gentle demeanor, but those that know her confirm that she is fearlessly single-minded. As Guo says, "As long as a litigant has confidence, he or she is undaunted by even the most difficult case.”

A case in point is that of 80 women who had been refused their pay at a garment factory after working there for three years under inhuman conditions. They sued the factory owner in a lawsuit that lasted for more than three years, without result. The All-China Women's Federation eventually took the case to Guo Jianmei's center.

Progress was not easy. As the lawsuit dragged on into its fourth year, the women workers began to lose hope. Ready to give up, it was only on Guo Jianmei's suggestion that they go home and leave one representative in Beijing that the women concerned agreed to keep her on the case. After three years, Guo Jianmei and the center staff eventually won the compensation from the factory owner that was owed to each of the women. Looking back, Guo says, "I believe the greatest significance of this case is our proving that laws can be trusted."

Enhancing Women's Quality of Life

During the decade that a woman named Wei had been married, her husband frequently beat her. In one terrible quarrel in 2000, he poured gasoline over Wei and set her alight. She suffered horrific burns. The police refused to treat the matter as a criminal case on the grounds that it was a domestic dispute. Wei obtained legal aid to pursue the matter at Guo Jianmei's center. When pleading Wei's case, the center pointed out that Wei's husband had acted with the willful intent of inflicting injury on another person, with appalling consequences. The matter, therefore, should be treated as a criminal rather than civil case. The court eventually gave Wei's husband a 14-year prison sentence, and awarded Wei RMB 80,000 in compensation.

Guo Jianmei: Patron of the Weak
Guo Jianmei confirms that most cases of domestic violence go unheard because of the universal reluctance to "wash dirty linen in public. "On the few occasions that such cases come to light, they are impeded by the concept that "Even an upright official finds it hard to settle domestic differences." Law enforcement departments generally turn a blind eye to cases of domestic violence, or are at best lax in their law enforcement. Guo Jianmei insists that perfecting relevant laws and formulating more detailed operational procedures on domestic violence is imperative.

In the decade or so since its establishment, the center has provided consultation on more than 50,000 cases and given free legal aid to 550 poverty-stricken women by acting as their agents in lawsuits. It has, moreover, submitted to relevant departments more than 70 attorney opinion letters, suggestions for legislation, and reports. Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and Nane Lagergren, wife of former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, have both visited the center.

The center has recently expanded its scope of cases. One instance is that of a woman from Sichuan Province who ranked first in the public servant recruitment examinations. Her employers rejected her application for the position of secretary on the grounds that the Sichuan provincial authorities prohibit male leaders from employing female secretaries. The controversy stirred up by this case sparked off further research into this area. The center also handled a case of "rape within marriage,"which it succeeded in getting heard in court. It has, furthermore, intensified research into and efforts towards obtaining legal aid for disadvantaged women in cases of sexual harassment and property settlements in divorce cases. In 2002, the center established China's first non-governmental website providing legal aid to women. This enables the provision of timely and convenient legal services to women all over the country. Guo Jianmei confirms that the center's activities are by no means limited to poverty-stricken women. It also provides consultation services to women whose economic situations do not merit free legal aid. Its ultimate aim is to improve the life quality of all Chinese women.

Addressing the System

In the first two years after its establishment, the center's four staff members provided legal consultation to nearly 10,000 people and handled 140 cases. As more and more people came to the center for help, each staff member was vastly overstretched. As Guo Jianmei says, "China is a vast country in which many people need help. But our strength is limited."It seemed clear to Guo Jianmei and her colleagues that legal aid should not be limited to individual cases.

In 2005, the center began to handle typical lawsuits that represent the rights and interests of the majority of women. The intention was to, "… push for a system that safeguards women's rights and interests more effectively. "The system proceeds under four broad categories of lawsuit: protecting rural women residents' rights and interests as regards land use; protecting the rights and interests of domestic female workers;  job discrimination against women; and sexual harassment in the workplace. Such cases often relate to established social conventions and practices and the accepted administrative system of China. They consequently encounter enormous obstacles. But Guo Jianmei is determined to persist. As China's first-generation NGO lawyer for the public good, her ultimate hope is that she and her colleagues will be remembered for their contributions to harmony in China's civil society.


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