Finding a foothold

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am


Pan Jiumei sometimes wishes she were a man.

For the 48-year-old chief of Jiangtang village, respect from her fellow villagers does not come naturally.

When conflicts arise there, she sometimes dreads intervening because villagers often shout sexist remarks at her.

'They would say: 'Long hair, no good!'' Pan said. 'They wouldn't dare shout if I were a man.'

The villagers were initially sceptical of her ambition, but they eventually came round to recognising her ability, she said.

'I'm fair. I don't drink or smoke, and I'm not corrupt,' she said. 'My work ability is as good as a man's, if not better.'

To better people's livelihoods in Jiangtang - an impoverished village in Guangxi cut off from the world by mountains - Pan dreams of building a paved road and improving access to water.

But lobbying her bosses for resources is often difficult, she said.

'I have wanted to build a road for ages, but my superiors never approved,' said Pan, a member of the Yao ethnic minority. 'They're all men. Things would be a lot easier if there were more of us women.'

Pan is the only women chief in the 138 villages in her county. Only 3 per cent of village heads on the mainland are women.

Scholars say that despite Chinese women's contribution to politics and their long struggle for the right to participate, they are still grossly under-represented in government and people's congresses.

In the late Qing dynasty, feminist Qiu Jin led underground activities to plot the overthrow of the imperial government. Five years after her plot failed and she was executed, women revolutionaries inspired by her struggle formed guerilla fighter groups and helped bring down the Qing dynasty in the 1911 revolution.

Under the new Kuomintang government, feminists lobbied for women's right to participate in politics. When the government refused, a group led by suffragette Tang Qunying stormed the parliament in an act of protest. Their efforts failed.

When it came to power in 1949, the Communist Party - which had boasted of equality of the sexes - raised hopes that women would be politically empowered at last.

In the first constitution of the People's Republic, announced in 1954, women were granted equal electoral rights. Soong Ching-ling, the widow of revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, became vice-president, and Shi Liang, a woman lawyer, became the first justice minister, serving from 1949 to 1959.

From the first sitting of the National People's Congress in 1954 to its fourth in 1975, the percentage of women representatives grew to 23 per cent, from 12 per cent, according to official statistics.

But statistics also show that China, despite having nearly 70 per cent of women employed (well above the global average of 53 per cent), still lags behind many parts of the world in terms of empowering women in politics.

The ratio of women deputies in the NPC has fallen since 1975 and has stagnated at around 21 per cent since 1978.

Today, just 21.4 per cent of NPC deputies are women, and they comprise just 15 per cent of its more powerful Standing Committee, falling short of the target of 30 per cent female representation set by the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995.

There is no woman on the country's top decision-making body - the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee - and there is just one woman on the 25-seat Politburo. Only 13 of the 204 members of the Central Committee, the party's highest body when in session, are women.

In rural China, although women make up 65 per cent of the labour force, they occupy only 1 per cent to 2 per cent of the local decision-making positions, according to the UN.

Feng Yuan, the former head of Shantou University's Centre for Women's Studies, said the stagnant ratio of women in the NPC means China had fallen behind many African and Latin American countries.

China's ranking in parliamentary female representation fell from 16th in 1997 to 28th in 2002, and 47th in 2006. This year, it tumbled even more to the 51st spot, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Rwanda ranked first and Argentina 12th.

'China prides itself as a country that pushes gender equality.... We should advance, not roll backwards,' Feng said. 'Today's situation is far from ideal.'

The central government mandated in 2008 that female representation on the NPC should be at least 22 per cent.

The State Council's Outline for the Development of Chinese Women, announced in August, said that at least one leadership position in governments above the county level should be filled by women.

It also said that at least 10 per cent of village committee heads should be women, and promised to gradually increase the number of women officials in the leadership of central, provincial and city governments in the next decade.

But scholars and women's rights activists say these measures do not translate into a genuine political will among officials to boost female representation in the government and parliament.

They say ministries and departments often think one woman in a leadership position is enough to fulfil the minimum gender requirement; that means many talented women are locked out.

'Whether it's the NPC or government, women's roles are often just decoration,' Feng said.

Women in government have limited influence because they are always in the minority.

And even when they are in top positions, women tend to be deputies to male officials and are often placed in traditionally female domains such as education, health and welfare, rather than 'high-powered' sectors such as finance, economics and trade, scholars say.

'You can see from the way women participate in politics that their roles are still highly gender-specific,' Feng said. 'Men are in high positions, while women are in low positions. Men are in charge, while women are in subservient roles.'

Du Jie, a researcher at the Women's Studies Institute under the All-China Women's Federation, said the male-dominant culture was still strong in China.

In the countryside, women willing to participate in running village affairs are often not regarded as 'decent women' because they are not putting their families first. In cities, even when people can accept female bosses, they cannot easily accept them as top leaders, Du said.

'There is the traditional perception that men are decision-makers, but if women have leadership talents, they are not seen as normal,' she said.

Women are often portrayed as flighty and light-weight 'flower vases', and so-called strong women are often vilified as aggressive and ruthless in the media, Du said.

Even though both genders enjoy equal education opportunities and 70 per cent of women are in the workforce, the deep-rooted bias against women often means competent ones are still left behind in the workplace, she said.

'Thanks to the glass ceiling, they are often stuck between the middle and top level of management,' she said. 'The more important the positions are, the fewer women there are.'

To genuinely empower women in politics, scholars say, democracy is a prerequisite.

Those who are concerned about the lack of female political leaders are frustrated that they have limited channels to influence policies.

Individuals and organisations without government backing have little representation in the parliament. And sometimes, their activities are under the government's watchful eyes.

'We can't get involved because we're outside the system,' said Lu Pin, editor of Woman's Voice, an electronic magazine. 'The rules are set by men, and those who participate in the system are men. There is no initiative for reform and no real pressure for changes.'

Liu Ping, a laid-off worker in Jiangxi, attempted this year to run as an independent candidate in the election for the local legislature, but authorities cracked down on her campaigning and she was detained by police many times.

However, women's rights activists say her attempt was significant because it represented an individual's fight for her rights to participate in politics.

'We're not just calling for women's rights, but the endorsement and encouragement of democratic participation from ordinary people,' Feng said.

'If there is no democracy, we can't even begin to talk about meaningful women's rights.

'Without democracy, everyone's rights and abilities are suppressed, and women's rights would be out of the question.'