Their feet no longer bound, women in China face new challenges

by AFP/Cindy Sui , Mar 9, 2003 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Linda Kong, a tall and curvaceous 29-year-old is not only unmarried but boyfriend-less. In a year, she will be considered a borderline old maid. But the English-speaking management staffer at a Beijing luxury apartment compound cannot be less bothered. "My career is most important to me. As long as I'm financially independent, I'm not in a hurry to get married," said Kong. But she admitted it has been difficult finding a man who shares her modern thinking. "A lot of Chinese men prefer family-oriented women," she said. "I want to find a man who understands me."

Two decades of economic reforms in China has created new opportunities for Chinese women, one of the most important is perhaps the chance to live the kind of life they want, which for many educated, urban females means pursuing a career. But Chinese women are also faced with new challenges and even setbacks, said women and their advocates as they marked International Women's Day (March 8, 2003).

As Communist restrictions loosen, society has reverted back to centuries-old Confucian-rooted treatment of women that the Communists once shunned. Under the Mao Zedong era, women's positions in society were lifted arguably higher than ever before. Despite being a notorious womanizer, Mao promoted gender equality, coining the famous phrase "women hold up half the sky". He outlawed arranged marriages, put women to work alongside men in factories and made everybody dress in the same plain outfits.

But Chinese women's positions in the family and workplace seem less stable now than during the earlier periods of the People's Republic. "There are more opportunities, but there are also more problems," said Chen Benjian, an editor at China Women's News, one of China's largest women's publications. Farmer women have seen their men pack up for the cities to make a better living, leaving them to shoulder alone the burden of tending to the farm and children. Many women also have migrated to cities for work. They make more money, but are forced to leave behind their family.

"My mother takes care of my child. I only get to see him once a year," said Liu Yaqing, 31, who works as a beautician in Beijing, far from Heilongjiang province where her 10-year-old child lives. Each Chinese New Year, she lugs bags of clothes and toys home, hoping they will serve as reminders of her after she leaves.

Urban women up until recently could rely on lifelong employment in state-owned companies, which provided childcare and maternity leave. Now many of them are the first to be laid off from the failing firms and are less likely to be reemployed than their male counterparts. More than half of China's jobless are women, but the reemployment rate for women is 19 percent lower than that for men, according to official statistics.

An increasing number of women are working for private firms, often factories where they slave away being exposed to hazardous conditions and sexual harassment, with none of the benefits or protection state companies provided.

Discrimination against women is glaring. Job advertisements for even low-paying positions such as waitresses require applicants to be no older than 20, good looking and of a certain height. "I really want to be a tour guide, but I'm considered too old to enter this field," said a woman in the southern city of Shenzhen. She's in her early 20s. China's laws, while stating men and women should be treated equally, contain few specifics to protect women.

"Labor rights protection is a big problem. Some employers very openly say they don't want women. There are no clear laws in this area," Chen said. Females encountering problems at work have little recourse. "In Mao Zedong's days, it didn't matter how you looked as long as you could do the work. Mao liked women who could work 20 hours a day, like a cow," said a middle-aged Beijing woman, who has a daughter in her 20s. "But girls in my daughter's generation are often sexually harassed by their bosses. There's no use quitting because the next boss will be the same. Employers nowadays also place too much emphasis on looks. Once you turn 40, they discard you."

To be sure, Chinese women have benefitted from a more open society. Flip through women's magazines in newsstands and one can see how far women have come. Staple article topics include women who make more money than their husbands, married women who want to have affairs and women's rights to lust. Look around major cities and women are driving cars, fancy ones too.

But Chinese women are now confronted with a new social ill -- husbands who can afford to have extramarrital affairs and even return to the old Chinese practice of keeping a mistress. "Many women are in a dilemma," said Chen. "They know their husband is cheating. They feel very hurt. But they consider the discrimination their children will face from society if they get a divorce and how difficult it will be for them to survive as a single woman." Society still considers divorced women as tarnished, keeping many in unhappy marriages.

Some women, especially girls from the poor countryside, resort to prostitution to make money, a problem that has become widespread despite having almost been eradicated by the Communists.

The government is eager to tout the successes of women. In the past week state media has highlighted successful women, such as Olympic gold medalists. But facts show China's 620 million women still have a long way to go before they have a real say. Of 198 full members of China's Communist Party Central Committee, only five are women. And the party's nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the handful of people making all decisions of any consequence in China, includes no women. Even in the rubber-stamp parliament meeting this week, female delegates comprise only 20 percent of the total.

To improve Chinese women's status in society, Chen said, women need to push for change. "The key is to increase women's sense of rights. Then we can express our voices and say what we think and what we want and push the government to change laws and change society's attitudes towards women," said Chen. "Women's issues should be solved by women."

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