Push for gender equality to help women trailing in rush to prosperity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2011, 12:00am

The media will, as usual, heap praise on the country's achievements in enhancing women's rights on International Women's Day today.

But experts warn that those at grass-roots level have been left behind as the country prospers.

The plight of young women migrant workers and rural women whose land is redistributed to male members by village chiefs deserves particular attention from government and society, the experts said at a Peking University forum organised by Half the Sky Public Education, an NGO founded in Hong Kong.

'Three big mountains stand in front of Chinese female workers today: pressure on the production line, pressure from a paternalistic tradition, and the hukou [household registration] system,' said Choi Suet-wah, chief co-ordinator of The Chinese Working Women Network.

Women form at least half of the migrant population, and up to 60 per cent in manufacturing hubs such as Guangdong. But unlike the first generation of migrant workers - who made money for a few years then returned to their villages to marry - young women workers today want to stay in the cities. The research shows they are doubly frustrated.

'On the one hand, female workers still feel the social pressure to get married when they reach their 20s,' said anthropologist Pun Ngai of Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 'On the other hand, they despair that the money they make is not enough for them to settle in the cities.'

The country was shocked last year by the suicides of 19 workers at factories of electronics manufacturer Foxconn. Pun's research showed more than half of Foxconn's 900,000 workers were women, almost all aged 18 to 25 but including many illegal student interns as young as 16.

Pun urged the government to abolish the hukou system, which restricts migration and enables factories to keep wages just high enough for workers to send money home.

In rural villages, sociology professor Li Huiying of the Women's Research Centre of the Central Party School, is gingerly pushing ahead with a reform that could reverse the traditional preference for boys.

'Approximately 75 per cent of villages today are still illegally distributing land or proceeds from the land to only male members according to traditional village rules,' Li said.

Despite the government's efforts to promote gender equality, official figures from 2007 showed the birth ratio of boys to girls was still 120 to 100. Li argued that changing the land distribution practice could significantly help to correct the imbalance.

Since the early 1980s, formerly collectivised land has been distributed to family units by village committees. In most cases, this is done in accordance with tradition, which passes family resources only to sons. When a father, husband or son dies, the land is redistributed by the village committees, leaving the women with nothing.

'In essence, rural women were deprived of their rights by a paternalistic system at the village level,' Li said. 'The law is clear, but it's very tough to change a cultural belief.'

For more than a decade, Li and her team have worked on two fronts: instilling the concept of gender equality among villagers, and engaging village and county governments to help initiate changes to village land-distribution rules.

Since March 2009, about 150 villages in Henan have amended their rules. Li wants more government support and social awareness to speed up such change.