China Focus: Holding up half the sky?

20:17, October 09, 2009      

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Over three years after Zhou Xianghua lost a case of sexual discrimination in retirement, said to be the first of its kind in China, she still believed it violates the principle of gender equality by ruling out women to retire at the same age as men, despite verbal attacks against her both from people she knew and strangers.

"With more social and economic progress, it is just a matter of time for women and men to retire at the same age," said Zhou, who was born in October 1949, on the first day of which the People's Republic of China was founded.

In October 2005, Zhou took to court her employer -- the Pingdingshan Branch of China Construction Bank in central China's Henan Province, accusing it of sexual discrimination. Four months later, a local court ruled against her, citing the Provisional Regulations on Resettlement of the Old and Weak Cadres, which was issued in 1978 by the State Council, or China's cabinet.

The Regulation stipulates that women retire five years earlier than that of men. According to the Regulation, women engaged in physical labor retire at the age of 50, those in headwork, 55. The arrangement was initiated taking into consideration the fact that Chinese women have shouldered most housekeeping duties by tradition.

As housewives, they had to feed a three-generation family in many cases with homemade food, wash clothes with their bare hands, and even make shoes from the very first step of preparing outsoles stitch by stitch. They should be relieved from doing labors both at home and work earlier than men.

However, thank to the rapid economic development China has gone through over the past decades, women's health has improved and housekeeping labor dropped significantly as household appliances became affordable to more people. And most urban couples raise only one child.

Zhou said she was healthy in the last five years and still competent for her pre-retirement job, which make her believe an early retirement means economic loss and sexual discrimination rather than a boon.

In Zhou's viewpoint, should the lawsuit take place now, she would face much more opposition and attack, given the grim job market in China due to the global financial crisis. After all, women's early retirement means more job vacancies. This was also one of the reasons she received verbal abuses from strangers three years ago.

Zhou's opinion was echoed by some experts and feminists who also see the once-a-boon policy as sexual discrimination, such as Liu Bohong and Xie Lihua.

Liu, vice director of the women studies institute under the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), is one of the most prominent Chinese researchers concerning gender equality and women's issues. Xie Lihua, editor-in-chief of Rural Women, the only publication primarily for rural Chinese women, is a noted activist for the cause of downtrodden women in rural areas.

According to Liu and Xie, Chinese women's status and living conditions have improved dramatically over the last 60 years, but they are still confronted with inequalities or discrimination in their daily life.


In history, Chinese women had been in a humble status and required to obey men -- from their fathers, husbands to sons - in a strict hierarchy.

Confucius (551 to 479 BC), whose philosophy has prevailed in China for more than 2,000 years, decided women's status with a short and influential sentence: "Women and people of low birth are very hard to cope with. If you are friendly to them, they get out of hand, and if you keep your distance, they resent it."

Things changed almost overnight when the Communist Party of China (CPC) came into power in 1949, ushering in a historic movement of women's emancipation.

In November 1949, one month after Chairman Mao Zedong declared the founding of new China at the Tian'anmen Rostrum, China began a sweeping campaign to stamp out brothels.

The first law the People's Republic of China ever enacted is about marriage, giving men and women equal rights to get married on a voluntary base, given the context that not a date but marriage was blind in China at that time. It was quite common that a bride never knew the groom before marriage. The parents or other seniorities in the family decided whom the young women should marry.

The law, said Liu Bohong, is of great significance to female emancipation since it upholds the principles of gender equality and freedom of marriage and divorce. The law forbids divorce based on an arbitrary decision by any third party and mercenary marriage in feudal societies.

"If a woman could be randomly traded, what's her social status? First and foremost, the Marriage Law states gender equality," she said.

In September 1954, the first National People's Congress (NPC), or the top legislature, approved the Constitution, which endorsed both the principles of gender equality and equal pay for equal work for men and women alike.

In addition, a nationwide movement was organized to eliminate illiteracy among women, since more than 90 percent of Chinese women having no access to schooling could not read or write at that time.

According to Xie Lihua, policies and laws adopted after 1949 produced significant effects -- on one hand, it was imperative for women to enter the work force since reconstruction of the post-war economy needed a huge number of laborers. On the other hand, China achieved unprecedented female emancipation as women received education and earned their own livings.

The weekly magazine Time reported in April 1957: "The first effect of the marriage law, just as the Communists hoped, was to release a huge portion of the population from the feudal bondage of fathers and husbands to serve the new state in work cadres... By 1953 more than 1,000,000 women held jobs in Red China's industry."

As Chinese women walked out of their home and undertook things they had never done before, the country saw its first woman tractor driver, first woman train driver, first woman pilot, and so on.

The women stars admired by ordinary Chinese included nuclear physicist He Zehui, water resources expert Qian Zhengying and labor heroine Xing Yanzi. Among popular political slogans were "Women Liberation," "Walk out of Home" and "Female Emancipation."

When the 10-year Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, these slogans were replaced by "The era is different, (and) the men and the women are the same!" and "To be battle-dressed, and not rosy-gowned," both of which were from Mao's quotations.

For 10 years, Chinese men and women wore the same blue-colored Mao jackets or olive army uniforms. Femininity was deemed bourgeois. It was the fashion for women at that time to dress in army uniforms bound at the waist with leather belts.

In 1968, Mao gave one of his most famous sayings -- "Women holdup half the sky!" But rather than seeing gender equality, China saw an elimination of gender as men and women behaved and were treated the same.

Since women and men were the same, the ACWF was forced to stop function during the Cultural Revolution.

The reform-and-opening-up drive started in 1978 brought about liberation of souls and hearts among Chinese men and women.

"Women began to have multiple professional choices and diversified values," said Xie. Women could choose what to wear and whether to stay at home or follow their own professional pursue.

The freewheeling market offers more opportunities for women who have good education or management skills -- allowing them to become entrepreneurs, company managers or senior officials, and earn good salaries and live by themselves, Liu said.

According to a report released in March by accounting firm Grant Thornton, more than eight out of 10 private businesses in China have senior management positions held by women. Overall, women occupy about 31 percent of senior management positions, ranking China the fifth among 36 surveyed economies.

The ACWF said China currently has about 29 million women entrepreneurs, roughly 20 percent of the country's total. More than 95 percent of these female entrepreneurs run small- and medium-sized companies.

Xie said China has borrowed quite a few concepts of women's movement concepts from the international communities, such as gender equality and domestic violence, especially after Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.

After the Conference, China has enacted or revised several major laws and regulations, including the Population and Family Planning Law, Marriage Law, Labor Law and Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests, to improve its legal system for the sake of gender equality.

Liu gave a comparison of figures to illustrate how fast China has marched forward to gender equality. China had only 600,000 women workers and staff members in 1949 but today it has one of the highest of female employment in the world as more than 347 million Chinese women are in full-time employment, making up 45 percent of the total workforce in the country.

In addition, women's average life expectancy rose from 36 years in 1949 to 75.3 years in 2005. Female students in higher education reached 9.3 million in 2007, accounting for 49 percent of the total number. Women obtain 637 seats of the 11th NPC, or 21.3 percent of the total.


Despite great achievements, both Liu and Xie acknowledge Chinese women still face inequality or discrimination in employment, right of parenting, political participation, retirement age, income, and sexual harassment.

Liu said substantive gender equality means equal valuing of the roles of women and men.

The reform and opening up gave birth to not only many more development opportunities for women, but also widening gender divisions of labor and income, said Liu.

"Due to the gender division of labor and cutthroat competition in the market economy, women find it hard to raise their status, and sometimes they are faced with discrimination. Though some are reluctant to admit, it's the reality," she said, adding that increasing female graduates encounter gender discrimination in the job market, especially under the financial crisis.

According to a research released in June by the Center for Women's Law and Legal Services of Peking University, nearly one in four female job seekers had been declined because of their gender, and 16 percent of the polled had experience of being denied jobs though they scored better than male peers in interviews.

The survey found one in 25 among 3,000 respondents had to sign labor contracts that contained clauses forbidding them to marry or become pregnant in a set period of time.

And more than 20 percent said their employers, mostly foreign-funded enterprises and Sino-foreign joint ventures, were reluctant to recruit women of childbearing ages. Some 11.2 percent said they lost their jobs for having babies, and one in 20 experienced workplace sexual harassment.

Fierce competition and excessive labor force contribute to employers' tendency to hire male workers so as to avoid sharing social responsibilities during women employees' maternity leaves (at least 90 days by law) and other relevant costs. And at a time of the global financial crisis, cost-minded employers are more prone to hire male workers, said Liu.

As a result, platitudes such as "hunting for a good husband is more important than seeking a job" and "Doing (a job) well is inferior to marrying well" are becoming more popular among female graduates.

According to Liu, it is unfortunate to witnesses the re-emergence of an old gender stereotype -- "Men take care of outdoor affairs, (while) women take care of indoor affairs."

Liu also cited the sex ratio as the most apparent test paper to review gender equality in China.

"China could achieve substantive gender equality if someday the sex ratio strikes a balance, and the old-fashioned Chinese farmers no longer value boys more than girls," she said.

According to the latest study by the Population and Family Planning Commission, China's gender ratio for newborn babies was 120 boys for every 100 girls, while the normal ratio accepted internationally is 103 to 107 against 100.

Pre-natal gender testing other than for medical purpose has been banned by the government as it realized the sex ratio imbalance "a hidden danger" that will "affect social stability" in the future.

Xie Lihua points out that the sex ratio is the most basic measurement to examine women's status in rural China, while the political participation is the top measurement.

According to the ACWF, by the end of 2008, women took up 17.6 percent of the village committee members, but only 2.7 percent of the village heads were women.

Liu said it was imperative for lawmakers and policy makers to raise their gender awareness so that the gender perspective should be taken into account more seriously in any legislation and policymaking. She suggests setting hiring quotas for women employers in the job market and improving the role of maternity insurance, so as to help women job seekers fight gender discrimination.

Xie recommends the government should improve the social security system in the countryside, reform the household registration system and help women gain economic independence so as to promote rural women's value and status.

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