For her pioneering and persistent work in securing women’s rights in China.
Guo Jianmei is one of the most distinguished lawyers in the field of women’s rights in China. Throughout her career, she assisted thousands of disadvantaged women in getting access to justice. She consistently addresses gender bias in the justice system and helps raise gender awareness in China, a country with around 650 million women.
She has founded and directed several organisations for the protection of women’s rights. As China’s first public interest lawyer working full-time in legal aid, she successfully introduced the concept of pro bono legal services for marginalised persons into the Chinese context. Since 1995, she and her teams have offered free legal counselling to more than 120,000 women all over China and have been involved in more than 4000 lawsuits to enforce women’s rights and advance gender equality.
Jianmei guides women through lawsuits and carries out legal advocacy at a national level on issues like unequal pay, sexual harassment, work contracts that prohibit pregnancies and forced early retirement without compensation. In rural China, where patriarchal attitudes are still deeply rooted, Guo provides legal support for women who have been denied their land rights. In 2005, she created the China Public Interest Lawyers Network that gathers more than 600 not-for-profit lawyers who can take up cases even in remote regions of China.
Law in China – the “Sleeping Beauty”
After graduation, she held positions at the Chinese Ministry of Justice, the All-China Women’s Federation and the All-China Lawyers Association. She participated in the drafting of China’s first comprehensive law devoted to the protection of women, the 1992 “Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women of the People’s Republic of China”. Guo was subsequently involved in a project that analysed the obstacles to implementing this “Women’s law” and looked at possible solutions. The discrepancy between existing laws that are meant to protect women and their lack of implementation has been a central theme of her work ever since. “Law in China is a “sleeping beauty”, she says. “If China’s laws were implemented more efficiently, there could be great improvements regarding the state of women’s rights and interests.”
A turning point in her career came in 1995 when the United Nations convened the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. This meeting exposed Guo Jianmei to ideas of how to advance women’s rights such as the involvement of non-governmental organisations and the concept of public interest law that was previously unknown in China. Reflecting back on that conference, Jianmei says: “The participants’ concern for the protection of women’s rights and for the NGOs worked like a warm current. I instantly felt that I had found my home.”
Voice for the voiceless
Guo Jianmei quit her secure government job to become China’s first public interest lawyer dedicated to providing legal aid on a full-time basis. She successfully introduced the concept of free legal services for vulnerable women into the Chinese legal and cultural context. In late 1995, she and several teachers from Peking University, co-founded the first public interest NGO specifically aimed at offering free legal aid to women, the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University.
Jianmei’s first client was a woman from the city of Xuzhou whose son had been beaten to death by the local police. When the bereaved mother travelled to Beijing to petition the authorities, she was hit by a tourist bus, sustaining severe injuries including the loss of one eye. The woman took the bus company to court because they had only offered a minor compensation that did not even cover her medical bills. She was in a miserable state when Guo Jianmei met her and offered to provide legal aid. Guo remembers: “When I took her to the courthouse, and the judge saw her dishevelled state, he said to me: ‘Couldn’t you find other cases? How did you come to represent this kind of person?’ I said: ‘I’m a public interest lawyer.’ The judge just ignored me and, holding his nose, kicked us out of his office.”
In the end, Jianmei lost the case but found her cause. From now on, she would fight for the rights of people at the bottom of society and make sure that disadvantaged women get access to the justice system. She would become a voice for the voiceless.
A cause “brighter than the sun”
Under Guo Jianmei’s leadership, the Center for Women’s Law Studies developed into the most influential and impactful Chinese NGO in the field of protecting women’s rights. In 2010, the conditions for civil society engagement in China became increasingly hostile, and the centre had to shut down after Peking University revoked its affiliation. The farewell note on the centre’s website said: “For over fifteen years, we’ve engaged in an enterprise that is brighter than the sun.” Guo moved swiftly to reopen the NGO under the name Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center. It was closed again during a major government clampdown on non-governmental organisations in early 2016. Currently, the legal counselling service centre operates under Beijing Qianqian Law Firm of which Guo Jianmei is the founder and director.
To date, Jianmei’s legal aid entity has provided free legal counselling to over 120,000 women in questions related to marriage law, property rights, labour rights, gender discrimination in the workplace, land rights, and many other important legal fields. Moreover, Jianmei and her colleagues have represented more than 100,000 women in over 4,000 court cases all over China. They work on the assumption that behind numerous individual cases lie broader issues concerning many women. That is why they chose about 400 significant and representative cases that could be used to advance legislation and legal practice. Some of these cases made national headlines such as the case of a woman named Li from Sichuan Province who had killed her abusive husband when domestic violence became unbearable for her. When Li was sentenced to death in August 2011, a huge public outcry ensued in China, and ordinary citizens began to discuss domestic violence. Jianmei and her team represented Li in her appeal process, and in the end, the death sentence was suspended. The Zhongze Center also handled several cases in which 12- and 13-year-old girls had been kidnapped and were sold to men who raped them. Chinese courts have a history of issuing lenient penalties for rapists, offenders often were only charged with the crime of ”engaging in sex with underage prostitutes”. The Zhongze team assisted these girls in their appeals and created public awareness that treating the rape of children as “sex with underage prostitutes” was outrageous and this legal loophole had to be closed.
Guo Jianmei’s work shines a spotlight on the state of women’s rights in China, where one in four married women has experienced some form of domestic violence at the hands of a husband, and gender discrimination at the workplace is rampant.
The Sword of the Law
Since 1995, Guo Jianmei and her team of lawyers have submitted over 110 legal opinions, research reports, and legislative proposals, some of which suggested improving the relevant laws and regulations.
Their persistent advocacy for the victims of domestic abuse helped pave the way for the enactment of China’s first Domestic Violence Law in 2016. The team has provided legal aid to cases that used to be considered “private family matters”. Jianmei’s Beijing Qianqian Law Firm compiled a selection of domestic violence cases its lawyers had handled and published under the title “Punishing Domestic Abuse with the Sword of the Law”.
Much of Jianmei’s energy also goes into litigating to secure women’s land rights in rural China where patriarchal traditions run deep. Women are often excluded from rightful compensation when village land is expropriated by the government or sold to private developers. Guo Jianmei and her team have helped women claim their land rights and get their share of the profits from land sales. In 2007, Jianmei was able to recover land compensation money totalling more than 9 million Chinese Yuan (about 1.2 Million US Dollars) for 28 women from the city of Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. This successfully concluded case became a classic law case in China.
Challenging the patriarchal tradition in rural China can be dangerous at times. When Jianmei and a colleague were helping a group of women in Dengfeng City in Henan Province claim their rightful compensation for land sold to developers, over one hundred furious male villagers wielding sticks trapped the two lawyers inside their hotel, and yelled: “family has family discipline; the village has village rules.”
“To commit yourself to this kind of work – you must be crazy!”
Encouraging other lawyers to help vulnerable women so that these women have a way to seek fairness in the justice system is an essential part of the work of Guo Jianmei. Looking back at her own motivation to become a public interest lawyer, Jianmei says: “China is such a big country. There are so many disadvantaged people in need of support, especially legal support. So this is something that should be done. But then why would people say this is not something that should be taken on? Because so many conditions are not ripe, not to mention back then China did not even have many lawyers. To commit yourself to this kind of work – you must be crazy!”
In 2005, Guo Jianmei founded the China Public Interest Lawyers Network. Today, it comprises over 600 lawyers and 200 law firms from all over China. They collaborate on cases and have been able to offer legal assistance in remote regions that are lacking lawyers. In all of this, Jianmei has proven to be a role model in the legal profession. without her pioneering work, subsequent generations of lawyers would have a more limited concept of a lawyer’s role in society. In spite of increasing restrictions and decreasing funds, she continues to advocate for the rights of women and disadvantaged groups in every possible way.
Together with colleagues, she also provided a vast number of legal comments and research that led to the refinement and improvement of relevant laws and regulations.
“The way ahead is long; I see no ending, yet high and low I will search with my will unbending”, she says quoting ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC).