Holding Up Half the Sky

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In the first week of September 1995, it rained every day in Huairou, a picturesque town situated an hour's drive east of Beijing. But the town was actually flooded by women--thousands of activists from around the world who had flocked to Huairou to participate in the NGO Forum on Women, the sister confab to the United Nations-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women being held in Beijing. The delegates were not to be deterred by the weather. Everywhere I saw women sitting amid the downpour discussing, mobilizing, advocating, organizing, educating, negotiating. When no interpreters were available, they used body language to get their message across. The initiative, persistence and fighting spirit of the participants were overwhelming. More than 40,000 women came to Huairou with passionate concerns, as they knew the more official conference in Beijing would be limited to a fixed agenda on multilateral issues. At Huairou, we debated the finer points of critical problems like prostitution, violence toward women, female suicide and inequality in the home and workplace. China has more women than any other nation. And after working for nearly 10 years on issues dealing with women and development in China, I realize the country has at least as much need as any other for the kind of energy and initiatives that came out of the Huairou conference. My involvement with such issues began in the summer of 1990, when I visited several villages in Huining county, one of the poorest districts in desperately impoverished Gansu province. The average annual income there was less than $25 per person. The land--mostly barren loess plateaus--was poor and irrigation difficult. Many of the villagers had no concept of what the word bao (full) meant, as they went hungry most of the time. Entering one village, I saw quite a few imbeciles sitting on the ridges of poorly grown wheat fields; there were also many illiterates, especially among women. I happened to visit a family of three living in a small straw hut with a kitchen inside. The husband told me that he considered himself lucky, as he had bought himself a wife with $50 and she had given him a son. His six brothers--like many middle-aged bachelors in the countryside--were too poor to set up families for themselves. The wife herself was happy: she had come from an even poorer village. Without this visit, poverty would have remained an abstract and dead word to me, seen only in films and books. At that point I realized, too, how women bear the brunt of such poverty because of their low social status. Some of them didn't have a proper name: they were known as so-and-so's mother, or wife. Their job was to give birth to children, especially sons, and to take care of the family. On top of all that, they had to work in the fields. I was stunned and flabbergasted when I saw my sisters living in such conditions. Tears welled up in my eyes. Yet I was not disillusioned or disappointed with the people or the work done by local village committees. On the contrary, I felt proud of them for fighting so hard under such conditions. That's when I made up my mind to work with these people to help bring about change. The decision launched me on a whirlwind, decade-long voyage that has shown me both the depth of the problems facing poor Chinese women and their amazing strength in overcoming the challenges. As an adviser to the monthly magazine Rural Women Knowing All, I often travel to poverty-stricken areas to lobby local government officials to enact women-friendly policies: to encourage literacy programs, for instance, or to establish micro-credit institutions so that women can start their own businesses. The magazine has started a practical skills training center for rural women to help improve their access to vocational training. Experts teach agricultural techniques, economics and law. At the same time, the magazine sends doctors to rural areas to lecture on sexuality, reproductive health and sanitation, and to perform basic medical checkups on women. It's not only in the countryside that poor Chinese women face difficulties. The Migrant Women's Club was founded in 1996 to help rural women and girls who have come to Beijing to find work. To help them improve their status, the club provides basic education courses in Chinese, math, English and computer literacy. Twice a week club members attend lectures on topics such as law, sex, gender, marriage, urban social values and issues facing migrant women. The Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing, meanwhile, offers help over the telephone to women who have problems related to marriage, family or divorce. The center has helped train many counselors for hotlines in other provinces and has hosted quite a few bilateral and international conferences. The social tensions created by China's economic transition have also caused an increase in violence against women. A group of female lawyers and college professors has come together to set up a center offering legal services to women who have been physically or sexually abused. The center also invites top law professors to talk about the Chinese legal system and how to improve it, as well as about women's law and how to add more teeth to it. The vast range of these tasks suggests the challenge China faces in improving conditions for its female population. (And this does not even address the issue of female infanticide, which poses a direct threat to the future generation of Chinese women.) But in my work I have been inspired by women working at the grassroots level planting trees and sinking wells, and trying to get into local party committees so they can influence the decision-making process. The passion on display in Huairou in 1995 has lasted far longer than the conference--as will, I hope, the impact of such activism. Wu Qing is a professor of American studies at the Beijing Foreign Languages University and a deputy to the Beijing People's Congress