A born Chinese Family Planner

13:01, October 04, 2009      

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As a grassroots family-planning official in China's most populous province Henan, which has a population of nearly 100 million, Wei Shuang receives dozens of text messages and phone calls every day. Her mobile phone number is available to 730,000 people in Fugou County.

One of her most unforgettable text messages came from a freshman at a local senior high school in 2007.

The boy asked: Why is my "little chicken" shorter than others?" The slang term "little chicken" means penis in most parts of China.

Most Chinese women would be outraged at such a message, even treating it as sexual harassment. But Wei was delighted. The message partly demonstrated the effectiveness of her sex- education lectures at the boy's school. By sending the message, the boy was showing trust in her.

"This is just one of the pains of growing up," she says. "About a decade ago, most rural children knew almost nothing about sex. Some girls believed sharing a bench with boys could result in pregnancy, while boys suffered heavy mental stress over masturbation."

Wei called the boy and explained the scientific "facts of life". She invited him to the Fugou Family Planning Service Centers he leads to see a male doctor. The boy kept the appointment and his worries were allayed.


Wei is a celebrity in this agriculture-dominated county. Many know and respect her. At times, strangers pay her bill at restaurants before she can, and some vendors say their food is free to her.

An experienced doctor in pre- and postnatal care and a family planner, Wei has been offering services to Fugou's 408 villages since her graduation from a public-health school in 1982.

At the age of 51, Wei still spends most of her time in the countryside -- disseminating up-to-date maternity and health information to women, checking their health and treating patients. At every village, she and her teammates hand out folic acid (vitamin B9) free of charge in a government-sponsored program aimed at preventing major birth defects of the baby's brain and spine.

"Whatever people here need in terms of maternity and health care, we try our best to provide. We offer proper services based on changing circumstances in Fugou," she says.

Because of widespread ignorance about sex, Wei and her colleagues have also been giving lectures about sex and how to achieve a better sex life.

In 1998, Wei saved a woman who tired to kill herself after her husband proposed divorce since she hadn't become pregnant more than a year after marriage. The situation had made the husband feel he was losing face. Wei examined the couple and discovered the reason -- the couple had not had a real sex life since the wife's hymen had not been broken.

Given perceptible improvement in living standards in rural China from 10 years ago, Wei explains what a well-balanced diet means to pregnant women and their babies. She remembers a pregnant woman turning to her for help after she ate 24 eggs at once, and another woman who delivered a whopping 6.9-kilogram baby.

In order to make various kinds of knowledge interesting and easy to understand, Wei and her colleagues often produce and perform shows for female farmers.

They also conduct free gynecological checkups for women and offer corresponding treatment. Wei says it is necessary to treat rural women patients in their homes since many are unwilling to see a doctor in the county because of embarrassment and often hefty expense.

After New China was founded in 1949, China established a medical system for both urban and rural residents. Peasants, when coming down with minor ailments, had access to the treatment provided by barefoot doctors in their villages.

The barefoot doctors, normally peasants with high school education background, received minimal basic medical and paramedical training. They promoted basic hygiene, family planning, and preventive health care.

The barefoot doctor system ended in the early 1980s, following the end of the People's Commune system of agricultural cooperatives. The government failed to establish a viable alternative. As a result, almost 90 percent of rural residents had to see doctors in the counties or cities, which meant high costs.

So Wei and her colleagues have partly replaced the "barefoot doctors" and have become family doctors to rural women in Fugou.

"Each time I cure a sickness, especially when I discover a serious illness and save a life, I feel very happy and satisfied," she says. "The couples who think they are sterile and desperate are always very grateful to me after they have a baby with my help."

Wei smiles and speaks gently despite the hard working conditions in the poor county. She values smiling. "I consider my smiling face a bridge between the public and the government."

Her down-to-earth manner and smiles have not only won the hearts and minds of Fugou's people, but have also brought her official honors, such as a national award for excellence in family planning, and for being a model worker.

"I have a big suitcase full of honors," she says. "But I do not work for honors. Instead, sometimes I feel an antipathy to them after having been a model for so many years. I don't like publicity or doing interviews. What I like to do is to offer a service in the countryside. Though it is hard work, it is the most enjoyable part for me."


It is by no means easy for a family planner to become well known and respected in rural areas. Still fresh is the memory of rural households unleashing dogs to chase away family planners.

In the 1980s, which Wei likens to a period of "violent storms", confrontations between the public and family planning officials, who sometimes used heavy-handed methods such as tearing down a house or confiscating cattle to deal with families breaching the family-planning rules, were extreme.

To curb its exploding population, China adopted the family planning policy in 1973. Official figures show the country's population had jumped to 852 million in 1971 from about 580 million in 1953 -- an increase of 47 percent in just 18 years. In 1970, every Chinese family, on average, raised five children.

Enforcement of the policy, however, was lax during its first few years up till 1982 after it was made basic State policy.

It stipulates that one urban couple can have only one child, whereas rural couples are allowed to have two if the first is a girl or disabled. And in regions of ethnic minorities including Xinjiang, Tibet and the Inner Mongolia, couples can have more than two children.

However, the good-intentioned policy faced strong resistance in the countryside, where the idea having more children brings greater happiness, and rear sons to provide for old age are deep-rooted.

Wei views the policy is absolutely necessary. She says, had Fugou not carried out the family planning, its population would now have passed 900,000 -- 23.3 percent more than at present, and over-population would have caused formidable problems like resources shortages and environmental pollution.

The figures from Henan family planning commission suggested the policy had since the 1970s prevented more than 33 million births in the province. And nationally, at least 400 million births were prevented, said the National Bureau of Statistics.

China's population will hit 1.5 billion sometime around 2033, according to the National Population and Family Planning Commission. And senior Chinese officials have repeatedly said the 1.328-billion-populated country will adhere to its family-planning policy.

Personally, Wei thinks having two children is better than one. Born in July of 1958, she grew up with four siblings. Yet she herself has only one boy.

"Two children means they could be companions for each other while they are growing-up. It is better than growing up lonely," she says. "If it were possible, I would really like a girl. As the old saying goes, the daughter is the apple of the mother's eye. Whenever I see a mother and her daughter walking side by side through the streets, I am really envious."

Wei says, based on her own observations during the years, eight out of 10 couples say they would have raised two children if policy had allowed.

"By following family planning, ordinary people sacrifice their personal interests," she says. "So it is a must to provide them with the best services and win them to an understanding of the policy."

Since the late 1990s, authorities have strategically shifted enforcement of the policy -- from simple administrative control to service-oriented administration. Family-planning officials have been required to use human-based methods during work.

Wei says, in the past 30 years, the attitude of Fugou people towards the policy has gradually changed from "reluctance and resistance" to "understanding and cooperation".

Such a change can be partly credited to Wei's and her team's work. It has also been brought about by the ever-increasing cost of raising a child, changing mindsets among farmers, and government-sponsored incentives to encourage fewer children, she says.

In recent years, Henan and other regions have begun to offer incentives of financial support to couples who adhere to the policy. In Henan, rural couples with one child or two daughters will receive an annual award of 1,680 yuan (246 U.S. dollars) when they are 60, while those with only one child awarded 480 yuan annually till their children are 14.

Wei says Fugou's average birth rate is now 1.7 children a couple, compared with 2.4 in the early 1990s.

Even so, "not everyone has understood and supported the policy," she says.

Last year, among Fugou's 7,436 newborn babies, there were 244 unapproved children, and their parents had to pay "social compensation fees".

The fee amounts is six times the annual per capita income of local residents. In Fugou, the annual per-capita income in 2008 was 3,704 yuan,

Though well-respected and persuasive, Wei sometimes still comes across setbacks. Her hand was once bitten by a pregnant woman when Wei tried to talk her into having an abortion since the woman already had two children.

But Wei, who has arthritis and heart disease, feels no regrets.

"The countryside is my world. I am happy to do something for family-planning enforcement. Sometimes I think I was born to do this job," she says, grinning.

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