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Rural women farewell fate amid anti-poverty war

(Xinhua)    09:43, September 11, 2020

LANZHOU, Sept. 10 (Xinhua) -- Zhang Zongxi first came to Huangshan Village in northwest China's Gansu Province to serve as a village official in 2018. To his surprise, he hardly saw any women out in public.

Located in poverty-stricken Dongxiang Autonomous County, Huangshan Village actually has 922 women residing here, but at the time, more than 98 percent of them were housewives who took care of their elders and children when they were not busy with farmwork. Many had never even seen the world outside their village.

Zhang visited many families in the village and tried to recruit female workers for a poverty-alleviation workshop established by an enterprise in July 2018. However, the mission failed.

Other village officials told Zhang that few women in the village would meet or talk to strangers. Unable to share meals with guests at the same table, they would eat in another room.

It was only several months later that Zhang began to make any progress, after he became acquainted with a local man who granted Zhang "permission" to talk with his wife about the recruitment.

Convinced of his own persuasiveness, Zhang thought he would have little trouble convincing the woman to join in the workshop, but was taken aback when the woman retired to her room before Zhang even finished his pitch.

In Shaheichi Village, Dongxiang, new village official Zhou Shengfeng also encountered similar problems.

"Most women in the village left school in the second grade of primary school. Many get married at the age of 16 or 17 and it is very common to see women in their 20s raising four or five children," Zhou said.

Zhou once attempted to persuade a father to allow his daughter to attend high school, but the father refused, explaining "that is the fate of a girl in Dongxiang."

For generations, women in Dongxiang have been fettered by fate and poverty. However, there were some who refused to suffer in silence.

Ma Haizhe, now 31, wanted to go to school like the boys in the village but was prevented by her parents. Stubbornly, she ran barefoot to school against her parents' wishes, and moved by her determination, they agreed to let her attend primary school.

As Ma prepared for her first day of school, her mother took her aside and told her, "Study hard, don't end up like me."

Ultimately, Ma's fate mirrored that of other women in the village as she was married at the age of 17, though she never gave up fighting for a chance at a different life.

Ma Haizhe saw a glimmer of hope after learning a workshop was hiring workers in her village.

The owner of the workshop was Ma Xiaoxiao, who was born in Dongxiang and was one year younger than Ma Haizhe. Ma Xiaoxiao's fate is completely different from other women in her hometown as her family moved to the provincial capital of Lanzhou in her teens, and she later attended college and found a job.

Ma Xiaoxiao visited her hometown in 2017 and was shocked by the unchanged situation and status of women in Dongxiang. Today, however, they are living a totally different life.

Knowing that women in Dongxiang are expert embroiderers, Ma Xiaoxiao and her husband decided to establish an embroidery workshop to provide employment opportunities for local women.

Only a dozen women across the county expressed willingness to take part in the first few months. The couple initially earned a reputation as troublemakers, as village elders warned their arrival would destroy families and corrupt the local women.

But Ma Xiaoxiao was determined to confront the skeptical elders and change their backward thinking.

As more and more government support rolled in and village officials and social forces joined in the poverty alleviation campaign, Ma Xiaoxiao was no longer alone.

"We need to help these women understand how they can change their fate, as well as help them break free from the shackles of their families," said Qi Xiuli, deputy director of the standing committee of the people's congress of Dongxiang and chairwoman of the county's women's federation.

With help from various forces, more and more women have found jobs in workshops, and Ma Haizhe has finally realized her dream.

Working at the embroidery workshop, Ma Haizhe can earn up to 3,000 yuan (about 438 U.S. dollars) per month.

This first generation of working women has succeeded in increasing their families' income without neglecting their traditional household duties, ensuring their husbands and parents-in-law are fully supportive.

Indeed more and more people in Dongxiang have come to accept this emancipation. Some older women have even joined their daughters and granddaughters on the workshop floor, while many men now happily drive their wives to work.

"Women's income, position in their families and relationships with their families are quietly changing. Women like Ma Haizhe have already embarked on a different path to their mothers, while their daughters are sure to venture further still," Ma Xiaoxiao said.

To date, there are 55 poverty-relief workshops in Dongxiang, covering various fields including hairdressing, umbrella manufacturing and knitting. These workshops offer jobs for over 3,100 residents, and 2,601 of them are female.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Wen Ying, Bianji)

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