Though the government has demonstrated interest in improving women's rights in China, economic and security issues far outweigh gender concerns.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing WPR series on the status of women’s rights and gender equality in various countries around the world.
China passed its first law against domestic violence in 2015, but a key part of the legislation—issuing restraining orders against abusers—has not been properly implemented, putting women at risk. In an email interview, Andrea den Boer, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent, discusses women’s rights in China.
WPR: What is the current status of gender equality and women's rights in China?
Andrea Den Boer: In the latter half of the 20th century, women in China began to enjoy much higher status and improved living conditions as the Communist government attempted to empower women by establishing equitable laws, promoting education and literacy for women, and creating equal opportunities for employment. But women have not been equally empowered, and discriminatory practices persist. While many—predominantly rural—women remain uneducated, illiterate, unemployed and ignorant of their rights, other well-educated women have attained positions of power.
Girls and boys now have equal school enrollment and retention rates, and women comprise 50 percent of university and college undergraduate students. At the same time, there are 64.5 million illiterate women, compared to 24.1 million illiterate men, in China. While women make up 45 percent of the labor force, they experience increasing inequality in the labor market in terms of unequal hiring and firing practices, a wage gap—women earn on average 74 percent less than men—and unequal access to credit. As China’s elderly population increases and the working-age population declines, the gender gap in retirement age has become a growing concern: Men retire at 60, while women in the public sector retire at 55 and all other women at age 50.
Finally, the percentage of women in positions of power and decision-making remains relatively low. Figures for 2010 show that women comprise 11 percent of provincial-level Communist Party cadres, 16 percent of county-level cadres, 21.8 percent of deputies within local People’s Congresses, and only 7.8 percent of government party leadership roles.
WPR: How politically prominent are the issues of gender equality and women’s rights in China?
Den Boer: Since hosting the Fourth World Conference on Women’s Rights in 1995, China has continued to engage in the global women’s rights regime by submitting regular reports to the committee overseeing the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and participating in bilateral dialogues and workshops with other states. China views itself as a gender-equitable state and wants to be viewed internationally as a state that promotes women’s rights, albeit its own narrow definition of them.
Although the government invests resources into improving the status of women, Chinese economic and security interests far outweigh gender concerns, which are only afforded minimal interest by the state. The government advances rights for women that are deemed to be in the national interest of promoting China’s political and economic development. Thus the state has taken some steps to advance equality in education and employment. But it has not taken sufficient steps to prevent violence against women, including sexual violence, trafficking, sex-selective abortion and intimate-partner violence, which affects at least 25 percent of the population, according to the All-China Women’s Federation, a state-sanctioned quasi-nongovernmental organization.
China claims that it owes its economic growth to the fact that it averted over 400 million births since 1980 through the imposition of its fertility policy. But this has come at great cost to women, and its effects will continue to be felt despite the fact that the era of forced abortions and coercive control of women’s bodies has largely ended. Although China has relaxed the policy to enable couples to have two children, millions of girls remain “hidden” in the population, meaning that they cannot attend school, receive medical treatment, or become employed. Because the gender imbalance and its accompanying problems are seen as unfortunate consequences of a state policy that is a matter of national interest, these issues are not viewed as women’s rights concerns.
WPR: What social and political barriers stand in the way of women’s rights in China, and what steps has the government taken to address gender inequality?
Den Boer: The absence of a functioning civil society in China is a significant barrier to promoting women’s rights. In March 2015, for example, five women’s rights activists were arrested for distributing stickers and leaflets to protest against sexual harassment. They were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and imprisoned for 37 days. The All-China Women’s Federation is tasked with advancing gender equality, but activists see it as ineffective or as simply promoting the Communist Party’s agenda.
The state has taken some steps to promote gender equality with the promulgation of laws in recent years to reduce gender inequality in childhood education; protect the rights of female workers from wrongful dismissal due to pregnancy and childbirth, or due to gender; and to establish gender quotas in village committees, but not at higher levels of government. To ensure universal school enrollment, for example, the government invested in school buildings and resources, as well as grants to provide opportunities to children in rural areas and among the migrant population. But there are significant challenges to meet the needs of rural children, particularly the daughters of parents who have migrated for work. These girls are among the 58 million “left-behind children” in rural China who, facing a double burden of farm and housework, are likely to drop out of school in their early teens.
In a country in which 565 million people live in rural areas; where gender stereotypes persist, and women and daughters are not as valued as men; and where both physical and structural violence against women is common, the women’s rights codified in national laws seem to have little impact. While government rhetoric describes a China of equal opportunities for men and women, as the World Bank commented in its Country Gender Review, the status of women in China is low, “so low that they can be bought and sold as chattels.”