Global: China’s Women Want To Speak Out


By Sreemati Chakrabarti, Womens Feature Service

The first session of the 10th National Women’s Congress was held late last month in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People, a venue where all important national events are showcased. The All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), the nation’s apex body to address women’s issues, organises these National Women’s Congresses once every five years. Although now the ACWF calls itself an NGO, it is a front organisation of the Chinese Communist Party.

The ACWF, known as the All China Democratic Women’s Organisation until the late 1950s, was formed in March 1949, a few months before China’s liberation, when various women’s groups spread all over the country and working under the Party’s leadership amalgamated into one body. The ACWF has – like the Communist Party and other front organisations of workers, peasants and youth – a pyramid-like structure from the Centre to the provinces, counties/districts, prefectures and townships/neighbourhoods. At every level there are congresses, which meet once in five years and elect Executive Committees which meet annually. A secretariat carries on the day-to-day activities. The congresses at each level have more than a thousand members. This huge size is to create and maintain a sense of involvement, with the participation of as many women as possible. Every month the Federation also publishes a magazine, ‘Zhongkuo Funu’ (Women of China).

During the liberation movement (1921-49), the Communist Party of China had women, particularly from the families of peasants and workers, joining it in large numbers, but very few were elevated to leadership positions. In the 1950s, women’s associations at all levels played a very important role in the transformation of rural China. The remarkable contribution of women cadres in the informal spread of literacy and health care in the countryside is well-documented. But in the 1960s and early 1970s the overtly radical environment created by the Cultural Revolution led to the almost complete dissolution of the Women’s Federation. Raising women’s issues was viewed as ‘attempts to split the proletarian movement’ and a ‘ploy of the bourgeoisie’. Most women in leadership positions at all levels were either ousted or sent away to remote areas to ‘reform through labour’. Red Guard groups criticised and attacked them on flimsy grounds. However, in the early 1980s,

the Federation reemerged and reorganised itself. Since then it has held seven national-level congresses including the latest one in October.

This particular event was considered significant as many among the Party’s top leadership made at least brief appearances. Among those who ‘graced the occasion’ were President Hu Jintao, Party General Secretary; Wu Bangguo, Chairperson of the National People’s Congress, China’s Parliament (equivalent to but more powerful than our Lok Sabha Speaker), and some members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, which is China’s power centre. Premier Wen Jiabao was in Russia and was unable to make it. The presence of male leaders’ at an all-woman event indicates the support the Party extends to the women’s movement, as indeed its control over it.

While it is true that this women’s organisation was in a shambles in the later part of Mao’s rule, if we are to consider the three decades of Mao’s rule in their totality, the overall position of women saw vast improvement. Women in large numbers were brought into the labour force, both in the rural and urban areas. Equal pay for equal work was practiced and a variety of labour regulations favourable to women were adopted. Two extremely important measures – dining halls in the rural communes and creches or day-care centres in all work-units (offices) both in the villages and cities – were put in place. The aim was to ensure that household chores did not keep women from participating fully in the workplace. The dining halls have disappeared now but one is still amazed by the numerous day-care centres, many privately-run, that still exist all over urban China today.

Post-Mao economic reforms have taken their toll on women. Increasing privatisation and the expansion of economic ties with foreign countries have acted as a dampener. Feminist scholarship from the West indicate that as far as urban employment is concerned, men always get preference over women in China. One of the reasons for this is that labour laws favourable to women deter prospective employers from hiring them. Similarly, old social evils like wife-beating and trafficking have come back with a vengeance. The gradual withdrawal of the State from welfare measures like food subsidies, health care and pensions, have affected women disproportionately, particularly in rural China. Every day, a large number of women from the villages are coming to the cities to work as domestic help. When the so-called state-owned enterprises were being restructured in the 1980s and 1990s through the massive retrenchment of workers, 70 per cent of the fired workers were

women, as shown by independent researchers.

In view of these developments, the role of the ACWF becomes important. Unlike other front organisations, especially the All China Federation of Trade Unions whose constituents have also had to face the negative consequences of speedy economic reform, the ACWF has been reasonably outspoken on the gender discrimination that is now re-emerging in China. It had, for instance, raised the issue of gender-bias in urban employment during the early stages of reforms. In 1992, the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women was passed. Through its mouthpiece, ‘Women of China’, and at various forums of the women’s congresses, discrimination related issues along with women’s achievements are often highlighted. However, while neither the Party nor the government is held accountable for the problems women face, the credit when things work out well invariably goes to them, and not to the women who’ve worked hard for these successes.

Nonetheless, the limited activism of women leaders has borne fruit once in a way. Much depends on their clout with the top party leadership. In the past, ACWF chairpersons have had close family ties with the top leaders – being wives or daughters in many cases. As Chinese women keep their maiden surnames it is sometimes difficult to find the link. The present Chairperson is Chen Zhili. How close she is to the Party Politburo is not clear yet. She is in her sixties and has been on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and was also was a Vice-Minister of Education. A post-graduate in Solid State Physics from Shanghai’s Fudan University, she has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. During the Cultural Revolution she was sent to do hard labour in a remote rural farm. Chen’s two terms as chief of the women’s body will only come to an end in 2018.

Many new problems are likely to emerge as China continues to modernise. At the moment, the issue of domestic violence is very much on the agenda. Reports say that with each passing year domestic violence cases have increased exponentially. The Federation itself receives between 40,000 to 50,000 complaints each year. A survey conducted in 2006 showed that nearly 12 per cent of female respondents in rural areas have faced violence at home, with migrant women workers bearing the brunt of such brutish behaviour.

On the flip side, the ACWF’s efforts have helped to narrow the gap in education and employment in the last few years compared to the 1990s. There has also been an increase in the number of women entrepreneurs. Nonetheless, the ACWF and its new leaders, Chen and Huang Qingyi, have a great deal more to do to address the dark realities facing women in today’s China.

(The writer is Professor, Chinese Studies, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.)

By Sreemati Chakrabarti, Womens Feature Service

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