International Policy/United Nations

China's Women Gather to Plan for Their Freedom

Tuesday, May 16, 2000

A new wind for women and girls seems to be blowing within the world's largest nation. While the government points to its successes, it also acknowledges domestic violence, sex trafficking and women's poverty.

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BEIJING-- As part of that global process known as "Beijing +5," more than200 Chinese women will meet in their capital city this weekend to help shapetheir country's plan for action in the coming years. They will also hostmore than 200 observers from United Nations agencies, other funding groupsand the news media.

The meeting here May 12-14 is a national meeting to prepare for the SpecialSession of the U.N. General Assembly in New York June 5-9. In regionalmeetings, from Manila to Lima, from Beirut to Geneva and Addis Ababa, womenhave conferred in recent months to assess world progress since the FourthUnited Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

"What you've got in China is a real momentum for change," says Joan Kaufman,a reproductive health program officer of the Ford Foundation's office inBeijing. "The degree of public discourse that's developed here in the pastseveral years is a sea change--the boundaries keep expanding."

Evidence of that new level of open discussion came in part on Thursday, whena high government official delivered a report on the status of women andchildren. While Madam Wu Yi's report pointed out some successes, it alsopublicly acknowledged that more needs to be done in China on domesticviolence and the trafficking of women and children - problems that have beenoff-limits for open discussion until recently. Madam Wu Yi is the statecouncilor and director of the State Council Working Committee on Women andChildren--the office responsible for monitoring China's compliance with U.N.conventions banning discrimination against women.

In a country where subtle signals can provide profound insight into thefuture direction of government policy, international observers say theweekend's meetings represent a huge step forward for China's women'smovement.

Not only did the government initiate the Beijing +5 symposium, but it isgiving a voice to non-governmental leaders in all aspects of women'saffairs--from health to criminal justice, from farming to politics. Holdingthe discussions in public, before an international audience, will help givefeminists leverage before the government submits its own report to theUnited Nations.

Among those attending will be women involved with micro-credit loans inrural areas, courtroom advocates for battered women and practitionersworking in reproductive health. Communist Party officials from around thecountry will also attend, as will provincial representatives of the AllChina Women's Federation, the party-affiliated group that is organizing theconference.

"The Chinese way of doing things is to have connections and this meetingreally builds those relationships," says Lanyan Chen, the U.N. DevelopmentProgram's gender adviser for Northeast Asia, based in Beijing. "If thegovernment leaders and the women's federation leaders can keep workingtogether like they have in the past several months, we'll be able to get alot of things done."

Two areas carved out for in-depth attention this weekend are poverty and lawand human rights. Both areas will be subject to day-long discussionsSaturday, while other topics will be confined to half a day.

This year, new efforts have advanced in the two areas, though results arenot yet evident. Since the beginning of the year, China's central governmenthas been trumpeting efforts to develop the country's impoverished westernprovinces. While the country has indeed broken world records for economicdevelopment, the riches have not reached rural areas, where 80 percent ofthe people live, and where the per capita income for 1999 was about $265 peryear.

Progress on rural poverty has eluded some women-centered micro-creditprograms, which are just beginning to assess some of China's culturalbarriers to the empowerment of women.

"We have found that money does not necessarily equal power for women in someof the rural areas," Sociology Professor Zhao Jie of Yunnan University tolda gathering of U.S. scholars in China earlier this year. "Even when womenparticipate in development projects, they can not have as much influence asthe men because they must attend to home chores."

Similarly, a public campaign has been underway this spring to arresttraffickers in women and children--a problem that has grown in China withthe development of trade in Asia. "The fact that the government has sent outthe message that trafficking is not going to be tolerated is hugelyimportant," says Kaufman, of the Ford Foundation. "This was an issue thatcould hardly be touched a few years ago."

Advocates and legislators have also been drafting a new marriage law, tobring China's divorce and family laws in line with the country's economicrealities. And women all over the country are experimenting with ways tofight domestic violence.

"Domestic violence is an area where the 1995 meeting really got Chinamoving," says Luo Ping, a sociology professor at Wuhan University in centralChina. "It really opened our eyes."

The Beijing Platform for Action that came out of the 1995 world meetingidentified 12 areas for national attention:

  • Poverty
  • Education and training
  • Health
  • Violence
  • Armed conflict
  • Economy
  • Decision making
  • Institutional mechanisms
  • Human rights
  • Media
  • Environment
  • The girl-child

     
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