Rural Tradition Hampers Women

Gender equality in China's countryside lags far behind the progress made in urban areas.

womancountryside305.jpg An elderly woman collects firewood near the Yangtze river city of Jiujiang, March 7, 2007.

HONG KONG—Chinese women have enjoyed equal access to education in recent years, but their overall status will remain unchanged without radical social change in rural communities, analysts say.

If education is any yardstick, the women in the urban areas of the world's most populous nation have made big strides in the political sphere.

Urban Chinese women can boast the highest levels of political participation in East Asia, according to "The World's Women 2010," a recent report by the United Nations.

China was cited as a leader in the East Asian region, with 21 percent of its parliamentary seats held by women.

By contrast, Belize, Micronesia, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Solomon Islands, have no women in parliament at all.

But while urban Chinese women enjoy basically equal access to education, rural women still suffer from widespread discrimination, Hangzhou-based rights activist Zhu Yufu said.

Economic empowerment

Zhu said that political empowerment of rural Chinese women would only come with their economic empowerment, however.

"If a woman hasn't got a job, and has to be a dependent for her whole life, depending on a man, then she will be subjected to humiliation," Zhu said.

"Sometimes these men, once they have a bit of money, take on the attitude that they can behave badly, because they are the masters."

"In a household like that, the status of the woman will be very low indeed," he said.

Beijing-based women's legal expert Song Meiya painted a very different picture for women in China's countryside, which is home to around 900 million people.

"It's not enough just to say that men and women are equal," Song said. "It is very hard to change the attitude in the countryside that values males above females, or the gender gap in newborn babies."

"To do that, you'd have to boost the status of women at every level of society, so that people in the countryside could see for certain that there really is equality between the sexes."

'Daughters will just leave you'

She said the Chinese custom in the countryside that a married woman must always go to live at her husband's family home would continue to undermine the status of women.

"If you bring up a son, he will attract a wife, whereas you bring up daughters and they'll just leave you," Song said.

However, Song said that while urban Chinese women have been hard-hit by mass redundancies and layoffs in the past three decades of economic reform, many have used the massive social changes as an opportunity to reinvent themselves.

"There has been a huge differentiation between urban women in recent years," Song said. "There are some women in the working class who have got quite rich [under economic reform]."

"There are others who, in spite of redundancy, have gone into business off their own bat."

"Urban women, especially the younger generation, from their way of thinking to their professionalism in work, have been gradually closing the gap with their male counterparts."

Difficult to get hired

But work woes have continued to dog Chinese women, who find it increasingly difficult to get hired in top-level corporate jobs once they graduate, even with high grades from prestigious universities.

"Despite some advances toward equality in the private sector, the gaps in the corporate sphere remain enormous," said the U.N. report, highlighting huge differences in pay as well as the lack of women in top jobs.

"Evidence suggests that corporate boards with more female members have greater participation of members in decision-making and better board governance."

Only 13 of the 500 biggest companies had a female chief executive in 2009, however.

"The glass ceiling appears to be the most impenetrable in the largest corporations," the report said.

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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