Hard Times For China's Women

On International Women's Day, women in China find little to celebrate.
2011-03-08
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Friends grieve at the funeral of a 21-year-old Chinese woman who died following a forced abortion in Liuyang City, Hunan Province, in February 2009.
Women's Rights Without Frontiers

Chinese women are increasingly faced with economic hardship amid skyrocketing inflation and discrimination in the workplace, as well as being the victims of rights violations in the absence of a clear rule of law, rights activists and commentators said.

On Tuesday, International Women's Day, blogger Zhang Yiyi wrote that Chinese women are taking a clear family leadership role in today's China, citing the catchphrase "Follow the Party, do what the wife says."

Zhang wrote that she saw no further use for International Women's Day, as women were already powerful enough in China.

But her view wasn't widely shared by rights campaigners and women with scant income or social acceptance.

Shenzhen-based commentator Zhu Jianguo said that while the official media was celebrating more than a century of International Women's Day, there was little to brag about.

"We can say that there has been an improvement in material terms," Zhu said.

"But in terms of the level of freedom they enjoy and human rights, I'd say things have got worse."

Fujian-based blogger Fan Yanqiong, who was jailed after writing online about the death of local woman Yan Xiaoling whose mother said she was gang-raped, agreed.

"From my point of view, International Women's Day is just a symbolic thing. In what way can it protect you?" said Fan, who was handed a year's jail term and later released on medical parole.

"There is no dignity for women enshrined in law," she said. "What meaning do the Women's Protection Law and the All China Women's Federation have? They are meaningless, empty shells."

"Women shouldn't think they can rely on government departments to help them solve their problems," Fan said.

Outside the system

According to official figures, only 21 percent of delegates to the country's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), are women.

While recent surveys found 34 percent of top management positions in China were filled by women, many women, from minimum wage migrant factory workers to recent university graduates, have found it hard to find work and to command salaries that meet their economic needs.

Shanghai-based civil rights activist Chen Enjuan said government initiatives rarely filtered down to women who were utterly outside the system.

"[Local officials] will barely spare a thought for the women who are out of work [this International Women's Day]," said Chen, who has no income and spends her days pursuing a complaint against the authorities.

"The middle classes, the white-collar workers, maybe they would take it a bit more seriously," she said.

"How can we talk about women's rights, when our most basic human rights aren't protected?"

Online polls on Tuesday indicated that basic economic problems like rising prices and frozen wages were at the heart of many women's concerns.

"Inflation has been terrible this year, so there will be far fewer women taking a day off for International Women's Day this year than usual," Zhu said.

"They are too busy earning a living."

Rights in the workplace

Official media reported that around 1.49 million Chinese women are low-income employees, of whom 285,000 are single mothers and 170,000 are migrant workers.

And while the government's All-China Federation of Trade Unions said it would set up committees to address the rights of female workers this week, independent labor groups say it has a long way to go before it can truly act as the independent voice of China's workforce.

ACFTU vice-chairman Zhang Shiping called for more collective contracts tailored to the needs of women to be negotiated with employers.

Besides the general terms in employment contracts, the contract for female workers would recognize the special rights of women such as maternity leave, equal pay and equal opportunity for promotions against male counterparts, Zhang said.

Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Wei said she had represented a large number of cases during her career in which women's rights had been violated, and had witnessed widespread contempt for women over many years in Chinese society.

Liu's clients had suffered beatings, torture, trafficking, harassment, rape and coercive prostitution, while at the same time, society was being bombarded with images of independent women, she said.

"The rights and interests of women haven't received protection in China," Liu said. "Women haven't the status with which to hold a civilized relationship to society at large."

"This is a society without the rule of law, let alone democracy or freedom, or civilization. How are the rights of women to be protected then? We haven't even built a basic functioning judicial system," she said.

And retired Beijing university professor and campaigner for the victims of the 1989 crackdown Ding Zilin said she had seen little improvement in the status of Chinese women since supreme leader Deng Xiaoping launched China's economic reforms three decades ago.

"I think that in today's society where money is everything, the status of women in the 21st century is actually lower than it was in the 1950s and 1960s," Ding said.

Reported by Man Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service and by Fang Yuan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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