Women’s Rights and Organizing in China
FRIDAY FILE: AWID interviewed Cai Yiping[i]about the status of women's rights and major issues affecting women in China - the history of women's struggles for equality, what has been achieved and what challenges remain.
By Rochelle Jones
AWID: How would you describe the status of women's rights in China at present and what are the major issues women are facing?
Cai Yiping (CY): Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, systematic legislations have been established to protect women’s rights and interests. China has also ratified the major UN human rights conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). China’s drastic economic growth led it to become the second largest economy after the US in 2010. However, gender gaps have widened in the last two decades, along with rural-urban disparities. Although “equality between men and women” is enshrined in law, women still experience gender discrimination and inequality on a daily basis and throughout their life cycle, from gender-selective abortion, inequality in education, employment and income, political participation, retirement age, access to health care and social welfare, to rights to land and property. Some groups suffer multiple inequalities and discrimination because of the intersectionality with age, class, geography, marital status, sexual orientation and ethnicity, among others.
The major issues that Chinese women face have to do with migration, gender-based violence, health, and economic justice. In rural areas, although women make up 65% of the rural labour force, they occupy only 1-2 % of local decision-making positions. Rural women’s contribution and potential has not yet been recognized and fully developed.
Violence against women (VAW) has always been an issue of concern. In recent years, this has extended from domestic violence (including marital rape) and sexual harassment in the workplace, to violence in intimate relationships, sexual assault, rape, trafficking in women and girls and sex-selective abortion.
Women’s health, including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), interlinks with other women’s rights issues, including health problems attributed to poverty, coercion in family planning, early marriage and childbearing, environmental pollution, VAW and lack of access to health services. Again, there is a disparity between rural and urban women in terms of accessibility to health services with 70% of China's health resources being allocated in the city.
In the Mao Era the dogmatic theory on women’s liberation claimed that economic independence is the premise of women's liberation. Nowadays more people believe that for a woman, “good performance in work is not as important as to marry well”. In China's booming economy, the number of women in employment is constantly on the rise, but the income gap between men and women is widening. Women are also disproportionately concentrated in labour-intensive, low-income jobs, and informal sectors with no social security and benefits.
AWID: How are women organizing to advocate for their rights?
CY: In the current political context, the Chinese Communist Party and State continue to play the dominant role in improving women's rights and gender equality. The All China Women's Federation (ACWF), the biggest NGO in China, is an umbrella organization with a large national network, from the provincial, township level to the villages, and with United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC) consultative status. It plays an important role in mobilizing women to participate in development and to influence policies on women's rights and gender equality. There are also emerging autonomous women's NGOs in China catalyzed by the Fourth Women's Conference and NGO Forum held in Beijing in 1995. These include women's studies centers in research institutes and universities, self-organized service providers, as well as advocacy organizations.
Compared to government-led women and development programs, NGOs strive to apply a rights-based approach and comply with the international human rights framework in their initiatives. Women's NGOs have been using the international human rights mechanisms and instruments to monitor the government's commitments on CEDAW and Beijing Platform for Action. They also conduct gender training for government officials, development practitioners and NGOs, as a tool to advocate the mainstreaming and integration of gender into development programs. NGOs are also dedicated to awareness raising and mobilization of civil society, especially youth. With the rapid development of new information and communications technologies (ICTs), women’s NGOs maximize the usage of these tools to generate and disseminate their advocacy messages to reach a larger audience.
AWID: What hurdles do feminist activists face from both the Chinese government and culture?
CY: Firstly, "men and women are equal" is the main discourse in China. However, this prevailing discourse and the progress achieved in gender equality in the last half century has been misinterpreted that there is no gender inequality at all, resulting in the mindset among some policy-makers and the general public that there is no need for efforts to promote gender equality and women's rights. This overall insensitivity and lack of actions to address gender inequality has become the hurdle that feminist activists face.
Secondly, Chinese women's NGO’s lack effective, transparent, inclusive mechanisms for meaningful participation in decision-making processes. ACWF have played the key role in policy advocacy on many women's issues and development programs. Other autonomous and grassroots women’s NGOs are also invited to consultations and negotiations on relevant issues. But, while the work of NGOs has gained significant recognition, the extent to which they can participate is uncertain and depends on many factors – such as openness and acceptance of decision-makers towards NGOs, their capacities, their relationship with women's organizations, access to relevant information and level of sensitivity of issues being discussed. Women’s NGOs also face a legal status barrier and financial constraints. Despite a call for relaxing NGO registration policy, registration constriction remains the biggest barrier for NGO development in China. Only 10% of CSOs are registered as non-profit organizations, the rest are either not registered or registered as businesses, meaning they are not eligible for tax exemption and other benefits.
Regarding culture, in the past people were inclined to attribute gender inequality to a protracted and deep-rooted patriarchal culture. However, many activists realize that gender inequality and injustice are caused not only by traditional patriarchal culture, but also institutional discriminatory policies. To reconstruct culture so that gender equality and women's rights are respected as core values has been on top of the list for feminist activists. For example, to change the culture of son preference, we need to reassess the practice in family planning policy that allows rural families whose first child is a girl to have a second child. This policy was designed to accommodate the practical needs of rural families for labour as well as the culture of son preference, but from a feminist point of view, this reinforces the notion that girls have less value than boys. It therefore contributed to the prevalence of gender-selective abortion and high sex ratio at birth in rural areas.
AWID: Given these hurdles, what strategies are employed to navigate through them?
CY: It is a crucial time for Chinese feminist activists to strategize in order to move the women's rights agenda forward. Intellectual elite women founded most women’s NGOs in the 1980’s and 1990’s and they played a leading role in women’s organizing, gender awareness raising, advocacy and knowledge production on gender and women’s studies. In the last decade, we have witnessed new forms of women's organizing and the booming of bottom-up grassroots groups, including migrant women’s groups, groups for women living with HIV/AIDs, groups of survivors of domestic violence, LGBT and sex workers groups, youth-led feminist groups and online feminist communities. The diversity and non-hierarchical nature of these groups has broadened and strengthened the Chinese women’s movement.
There has also been a process of networking and alliance building on different themes. Despite the challenges in coordination, operation and resource sharing, it is without doubt that a joint force can amplify the voices of women’s NGOs in order to have a greater impact.
Another strategy is to build synergy across feminist academia, women's federation, NGO activists and larger social movements based on their respective strengths and advantages. Some new initiatives attempt to bring together strengths across different sectors to support each other's work and to achieve shared visions. For example, the “Gender Equality Policy Advocacy Project" brought together feminist scholars, grassroots NGO activists, and women's federations cadres in order to change the deep-rooted son preference culture via community mobilization, gender awareness raising and policy intervention. In another words, we need both bottom-up and top-down approaches.
With the accelerated process of globalization, Chinese women's organizations are also rethinking some of the issues -- gender and trade; migrant workers in transnational companies; gender and corporate social responsibility of China's overseas investment; and cross-border trafficking of women -- from a global perspective. It is within such a context that collaboration with southern feminist activists to mount resistance against profit-driven globalization, gender inequality and social injustice is a crucial strategy for Chinese women's organizing. One example is the collaboration of Chinese feminist activists with DAWN for strengthening capacity of Chinese women's groups and civil societies on the analysis and advocacy on the inter-linkage of gender, economical and ecological justice. The concept of “glocalization” requires China's women's movements to re-position in the global political and economic structure of multiple power relations and inequality.
i] Cai Yiping, is Executive Committee member of Develop Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), a network of feminist scholars, researchers and activists from the economic South working for economic and gender justice and sustainable and democratic development. Email: email@example.com