China From the Inside

Power and the People
Women of the Country
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Gallery of Women Activists
Dai Qing: Journalist-turned-environmentalist Hou Wenzhuo: Human rights activist Wu Qing: Champion of people's rights Xie Lihua: Advocate for rural women Dr. Gao Yaojie: AIDS education activist Nominate another female Chinese activist

Xie Lihua

Advocate for rural women

Xie Lihua

Xie Lihua is the editor of Rural Woman magazine and Secretary General of the Development Center for Rural Women in Beijing. Education and gender awareness among rural women are her primary aims.

Xie sees herself as a feminist in a country full of patriarchal traditions and remembers her own mother's funeral as typical in China and pivotal in her beliefs: "My young nephews were all in front of me. As a daughter, I was put back with the younger generation in the funeral procession. It was all men at the front, and according to custom they had to say a lot. The women were only allowed to cry, not to speak."

Recognizing that it's difficult for individuals to challenge traditions like this, Xie sees that rural women -- both those who remain working in rural areas and those who migrate to cities to find work -- are often hit hardest by patriarchal practices and find it the most difficult to pursue their own dreams.

In rural areas, despite laws guaranteeing women's equality which have been in place since the Communist Party took power in 1949, traditional patriarchal values still dominate. Xie attributes this to the Communist Party assigning equal rights to women: "After 1949, women were given equal rights. The government gave them these rights, but there wasn't a demand for rights from the women themselves. In China it was from the top down. Rights weren't fought for and won by the women themselves."

Harsh economic realities also play a part in the subjugation of rural women. Often in agricultural communities, daughters leave home to join their husbands' families when they marry and therefore represent no long term financial benefit to their parents. Sons, not daughters, support their aging parents, so poor families are reluctant to invest scarce money in their daughters' education.

To combat this vicious circle of poor education and dependence, Xie's organizations run programs to increase literacy, giving women the basic tools necessary to gain knowledge and be independent of men. "We are mainly focusing on women who are young to middle-aged, trying to eliminate illiteracy among them. We've written textbooks. We've trained local teachers. We teach them the Chinese characters they ought to learn. We aim to teach them at least 500 characters, so that they won't need to worry when they go into town."

Coupled with literacy training is education in gender awareness. Xie has seen remarkable changes in the young women who have received the training: "It's incredible. In the past they listened to whatever their parents said. But after the training, they're able to reason with their parents and even persuade them to change their minds."

Despite some progress, Xie still has concerns about the future for China's women. A combination of traditional values favoring sons over daughters and China's birth control policies has resulted in a surplus of men over women. In rural areas, couples whose first child is a girl are allowed to have another, in the hope of producing a son. Often, couples will pay for illegal medical scans to determine the sex of a fetus and then have an abortion if it is female. Xie worries about the long-term effects of the policy: "It has caused an increase in the imbalance between men and women. But the birth control departments won't admit that there is something wrong with their policy." She estimates that if the trend continues, by the year 2020 there could be a shortfall of around 40 million women, leaving many young men unable to find wives. If this happens, Xie says, "abduction and trafficking of women will increase. So will prostitution, as well as sexual violence against women and rape. I think this problem really must be solved from the ground up."

Xie hopes that skills and independent thinking modelled by her organization will be passed on from woman to woman, generation to generation. "Give someone a fruit and they can enjoy it only once, but give someone a seed and they can enjoy it for life" is her group's motto.

NEXT: Dr. Gao Yaojie: AIDS education activist
PREVIOUS: Wu Qing: Champion of people's rights

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