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     Volume 4 Issue 28 | January 7, 2005 |

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Where Women Hold Half the Sky


With its phenomenal emergence as an economic powerhouse that has managed to retain its communist ideology, China has become the most intriguing country for the world. Not only has it taken over a good share of the global market, in terms of development no other country has done it so well and so fast. But what is most remarkable about China is that it has shown itself as a leader in terms of gender equality in the field of employment and political participation. Today around 46% of the labour force comprise of women. Among the 16 trades listed in the national economy, 10 hire more women than the others. In government, there are about 16 women ministers and 29 deputy ministers.

The high rate of women's employment and involvement in every aspect of development indicates China's maturity in recognising the essential role that women play in nation building. This in spite of the fact that China, being part of the Asian community has its own history of feudalism and chauvinism where women's feet were once bound up to keep them looking small and dainty- a reflection of how they were perceived.

Even after China's adoption of a policy of reform and opening up and its transition from a planned economy to a market economic system, the pressure of women in every aspect of the country's progress, had remained prominent and in some cases more visible.

A recent visit to Dhaka of a delegation of All-China Women's Federation organised by Bangladesh-China People's Friendship Society provided the opportunity to get a glimpse of China's remarkable success in creating a society where the importance of women's participation in economic, political and social arenas is acknowledged and promoted.

Zhang Shiping, a key member of All--China Women's Federation and leader of the delegation says, that a large part of the present increase in women's participation in society, can be credited to the opportunities women can take advantage of as a result of China's opening up policy. "The Chinese government and many NGOs have done a lot to help women," says Zhang, "especially with the difficulties in employment during the economic transition."

Women now make up 43% of employment in education, culture and arts, broadcasting, television and films. In finance and insurance, this figure is 41% while in welfare and sports it is as high as 57.5%. Another important sector where Chinese women are making significant inroads is business. Women entrepreneurs make up 20% of the total Chinese entrepreneurial population. Women's business ventures moreover have created more jobs for women. In most enterprises run by women entrepreneurs, female employees make up more than half of the total employees.

In rural areas too, women play a significant role. Over 60% of labour engaged in horticulture, livestock breeding, processing and farming, are female. Of this 60%, about 50 million women work in local township enterprises. "This progressive scenario has been largely possible," says Zhang, "because of China's state policy on gender equality and laws to protect the rights and interests of women."

Article 96 of the Chinese constitution for example, stipulates that "Women in the People's Republic of China enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of political, economic, cultural and family life. Marriage, the family, and mother and children are protected by the state." Article 48 of the constitution stipulates "equal pay for equal work for men and women alike and trains and selects cadres from among women."

Zhang, who is also a member of the secretariat of the Federation, points out that the legal system, too, provides safeguards for women's rights. Being a signatory to CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women) China has had numerous laws concerning a wide range of areas including marriage, maternity and infant health care and domestic violence. Since women are particularly vulnerable when it comes to taking legal action, the state has come up with 'Regulations of Legal Aid to Women and Protection of Women's Legal Rights and Interests. Their regulations instruct all relevant institutions such as legal aid organisations, law offices, notary departments and grass roots legal service agencies to pay immediate attention to women's claims, appeals and prosecutions when their rights and interests are infringed. The order also says that legal service fees should be reduced or waived for female parties who are unable to pay.

Healthcare for women and children, is also a major priority in policy making. Thanks to a huge network of healthcare facilities in the cities and rural areas, women and children have access to hospitals and clinics and health care centres. According to 2003 statistics, the medical network includes over 3000 health care centres and 89,000 hospital beds for women and children and 290,000 midwives in the countryside.

"There are also working committees," Zhang says, "comprising women children and elders to co-ordinate women and children affairs."

Zhang represents an organisation that is the largest women's organisation in all of China. The All-China Women's Federation has over 60,000 full time women workers and almost a million women volunteers. Founded in 1949, it is a huge organisation that aims to represent and protect women's rights interests and to promote equality between women and men. With such an impressive representation, the Federation has considerable influence in policy makeup, especially in promoting national programmes for women and children's development.

The federation's motto is to strengthen women's spirit of self-esteem, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-improvement. This includes improving their technical and professional skills and to enhance their overall competence.

Pro-woman state policy is definitely good news for any country but does it necessarily change age-old chauvinism, which is very much a part and parcel of all Asian nations, including China?

The founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 no doubt brought great changes to the social status of Chinese women giving them access to State leadership and important positions at every level of society. The recent opening up of the economy has added increased economic power for the women of China. Zhang, admits that even now, there are instances of discrimination especially in employment and domestic violence is a problem, especially in rural areas. But the great economic boom China has been enjoying for the last ten years and its phenomenal development before that can directly be attributed to equal participation of men and women has given men more reasons to perceive women as equal partners in nation building.

Zhang gives her characteristic answer when asked about the Chinese version of feminism. "We don't want to say that women are superior to men. We accept our mental and physical differences, which means there will be differences in employment choices as well as family responsibilities. We just want equal rights and opportunities."

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