It is a truth universally acknowledged that the plight of women across the world is often still substandard to men, China included. While China’s metropolises boast high power and high wealth individuals that include many women, the female population in the countryside faces a high rate of depression and suicide. Such drastic contrasts deserve to be examined, and today we’re taking a brief tour of the treatment of women in recent Chinese history, the issues currently affecting women, and areas of development and advancement.
History: Half the
Until the Communist party took control in 1949, the position of women in Chinese society was subservient to say the least. Foot binding was not so much history as a recent memory and the practice of polygamy was a normal part of life. Women did not, generally, work outside the home. But when the People’s Republic of China came in power, much changed in women’s favor.
As Mao famously said (and every article about Chinese women quotes) “women hold up half the sky”. New laws banned the practice of having multiple wives and concubines. Women were given the right to divorce their husbands, prostitution was “abolished” on paper, women were allowed and even encouraged to work, and educational opportunities surpassed that of many other countries at the time.
Since then, however, a number of these advancements have regressed even as aspects continue to progress. As Sun Zhongxin, a sociologist who specializes in Chinese women’s studies, explains, “capitalism has created a tendency to ‘treat women as a commodity’ throughout China’s poorly regulated labor market.” Prostitution is on the rise with an estimated 4 million women (many of them trafficked) in the still very illegal trade. Male children are still preferred over female to the extent of an unnatural gender gap. Yet more women are getting educations than ever before and recent media and Internet outcries have moved women’s rights to the national stage.
The male-female birth gap is a good starting place when discussing women in China. Historically, Chinese, especially those in rural areas, have shown particular preference over male children and with the one child policy, the position of girl babies is painfully clear, especially in rural areas. We can see evidence of this fact in the number of female babies in China’s orphanages and the illegal practice of terminating female babies in the womb.
The male-female birth gap has been a source of concern for some time as the numbers are unnaturally large in comparison to other countries. There are approximately 119 males to every 100 females in China compared to an average ratio of 100 to 107 in industrialized countries. In June, Xinhua reported that the sex ratio at birth has seen a small decrease of 1.11 points, the first drop in four years. If the gap continues to fall this may be evidence that Chinese society is changing its view of women.
For more information: Gender Imbalance (BBC)
Education and women’s rights are directly correlated, and the availability of education to women has shown sharp contrasts in their social status. In cities, where most families have only one child and the economy is more lucrative, girls are more often given the same opportunities as boys to pursue education.
While the government mandates equal education for children, this is not enforced in all regions. The limited financial and educational resources of rural areas, multiple children, and the favoritism of male children make the situation very different for girls in the countryside. If one child in the family can go to school, it is the son that gets the opportunity.
Girls may not even be considered as candidates for high school because they will likely get married and become a part of their husband’s family. Those that are enrolled tend to miss more days of school than boys, as well, showing that the family’s value on their education is not as high as for girls.
Girls in poor rural areas who do complete the compulsory nine years of free education provided by the government are still less likely to be given the opportunity by their parents to continue to high school and consequently to college than their male peers.
A number of organizations seek to provide educational opportunities for girls in rural areas including Couleurs de Chine, which works with the Miao people group, and Half the Sky, an organization that cares for orphaned girls.
For more on rural education check out our post on the subject here.
The plight of rural women is an oft-discussed issue in China. As rural people receive the brunt of economic troubles in China, women incur as much, if not more, stress than men. According to a recent survey (in Chinese) on the population of those left at home while another family member seeks employment as a migrant worker, women make up 47 million of these, accounting for 54.2% of all Chinese women.
As men go to the cities to work, women are left behind to farm the land, care for the children and the elderly, as well as, maintain the household. The loneliness and desperation of these women has given China the highest number of female suicides in the world with the bottle of pesticide found in each house a tempting solution to escaping a miserable situation.
Rural women are also in the most vulnerable position to be trafficked. Often sold into sexual slavery by a family member, they are taken to cities across China and across borders. These women are subjected to abuse, high rates of cervical cancer, and STDs that go untreated. With few organizations working to help these women, they are largely without advocates and put in a position of shame that is difficult to escape from.
One woman, who has often been unpopular for her progressive views of rural women, stepped up to help the situation by working to both change how rural women see themselves and how they are viewed in society. When Xie Lihua was born, she was her family’s second daughter and virtually despised by her mother because she wasn’t the much coveted son that had been hoped for. As Xie grew up, she decided to use her experiences in journalism to change things. She founded Rural Women magazine seventeen years ago, along with the country’s first NGO focused specifically on rural women and empowering them to take their place in society. She also has taken special efforts to prevent suicides among women in the countryside.
As she has been challenged to tone down her activism for rural women, so Xie has encouraged her readership to start their own magazines and to challenge the traditional roles that have long gone unquestioned in the Chinese countryside.
For more information on rural women: A Voice for Rural Women, World Health Organization and Suicide in Rural China
In China, domestic abuse is considered a “family matter” and as such it is often ignored or overlooked, even by police who tend to avoid the problem until serious injuries are incurred or death. Statistics from the All-China Women’s Federation report that 94% of domestic abuse victims are women, and that one-quarter of all divorces are attributed to domestic abuse.
While women are protected under the law from violence, there are no specific domestic abuse laws. As groups like ACWF and Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center advocate for these laws, awareness is growing about women’s rights. The Beijing Times reported in 2003 that there were more than 6,000 hotlines across China that abused women could call for consultation and legal aid. Local women who are part of women’s federations have largely been responsible for the rise in awareness on this issue.
Inequality in Employment
Gender inequality plays a significant role in the workplace in China. On average, middle class working women earn about 14,900RMB (US$2200) less per year than men. A survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics measured the incomes of urban women against men and found that the former’s income had dropped 7 percent between the years 1990 and 2000 and that women were making 70 percent of men’s salaries.
Another issue in the workplace is sexual harassment, which has drawn more attention in recent years with high profile court cases and new laws addressing the protection of women’s rights. Cities such as Guangdong, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Liaoning have passed their own laws on sexual harassment, each with different specifications based on what the local government feels is needed in the particular area. “For example, an employer will be required to change an office’s wooden door to a transparent glass door, if any of its staffers report to have been sexually harassed in that office.” (China Daily) Even with new laws, cultural stigma remains such that women usually feel embarrassed to file claims against male co-workers for verbal and physical sexual harassment them.
Other forms of discrimination include the common practice of giving men preference for jobs over married women of childbearing age, and even firing women after they become pregnant to avoid the cost of having an employee on maternity leave.
A blue paper published by the Social Sciences Academic Press at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that the more educated a woman is, the less discrimination she is likely to face in the workplace. Apparently, the Public Service Announcements were right, Knowledge is Power, but it is power with a definite ceiling.
The place of women in the government shows that there is still work to be done before women are considered equals in the Chinese work force. The New York Times reports that women are largely underrepresented in the upper echelons of China’s political system. Since 1997, the country’s world ranking for women in its parliament, the National People’s Congress, has fallen with China formerly ranking in 16th place worldwide now down to 53rd.
“It’s not that China has gotten worse,” said Ms. Zou, director general of the international liaison department at the Women’s Federation, in an interview on the sidelines of a recent women’s conference in Beijing. “It’s that the rest of the world has gotten better.”
Yet China still has not reached its goal of increasing women’s representation in the government from 20 percent to 30 percent, a call made by the United Nations during the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing fifteen years ago.
While the comparison of salaries and the position of politics are works in progress, helping along the cause are China’s high wealth women who are surprisingly large in number. Of the fourteen female self-made billionaires worldwide, half of them are from China according to Forbes. While very few women worldwide hold this title, the prominence of Chinese women on the list is impressive. This year’s Hurun Rich List also listed 102 women out of a total of 1,000 of China’s wealthiest citizens, though it should be noted that many achieved their fortune with the help of a male counterpart or family inheritance.
Where China’s women go from here is uncertain. As varied as they are from countryside to metropolis, Chinese women are known for their resilience and ability to face difficult situations with strength; however, to move forward they require better education, more government support, and frankly to be pushy enough to demand better treatment in society. Come to think of it, help from the male majority wouldn’t hurt either.