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Reflections on the Chinese women's movement in the new era

Based on her own experience and engagement in the women's movement in China and globally since the 1990s, a Chinese activist attempts to respond to and reflect on the following critical questions: Where are we now as a Chinese women's movement? Who are the main players in the setting of the women's rights agenda? What are the major issues women are facing and what are the new trends in their mobilisation? And more importantly, how can we strategise and move the women's rights agenda forward?

Cai Yiping


IN this article, I would like to draw on my personal journey as a young feminist nurtured by the 4th World Conference on Women held in 1995 in Beijing and the context and trajectory of the Chinese women's movement since the 1990s. I respond to and reflect on the following critical questions: Where are we now as a Chinese women's movement? Who are the main players in the setting of the women's rights agenda? What are the major issues faced by women? How can we strategise and move the women's rights agenda forward?

I was a lucky one in many ways. As a young feminist I had the chance to attend the Beijing conference, which was an eye-opener for me and reaffirmed what I committed to do and be - a feminist who struggles against all forms of oppression, discrimination and injustice. It was also the first time that I encountered international feminist movements and I was keen to discover more. This would allow me to look at Chinese women's rights in a global context and, equally importantly, to understand the history of women's struggles for equality, what they have achieved and what challenges remain ahead.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China has established systematic legislation to protect women's rights and interests. China has also ratified the major UN human rights conventions and asserted its commitment to advancing women's rights and gender equality. The government formulated and implemented three National Programmes for Women's Development (1995-2000, 2001-10 and 2011-20) to address the most prominent women's issues and further promote gender equality.

Since the 1980s, China has experienced drastic economic growth, a 'socialist market economy', along with the process of neoliberal-led globalisation. China became the second largest economy after the US in 2010.Against this backdrop is the glaring reality that gender gaps have been widening in the last two decades, along with rural-urban and regional disparities.

Key gender issues in China

Gender inequality

Despite the principle of 'equality between men and women' being enshrined in the Constitution and the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women, women continue to experience gender discrimination and inequality on a daily basis and throughout their life cycles, for example, son preference that results in sex selection and female infanticide, inequality in education, employment and income, political participation, retirement age, access to health care and social welfare, and unequal rights to land and property. Some groups of women, for example, migrant women, minority women and those living with disabilities and HIV/AIDS, may suffer multiple inequalities and discrimination because of their age, class, geography, marital status, sexual orientation, ethnicity and so on.

Rights of migrant women and rural women

Migrants experience various forms of discrimination such as in access to social benefits, education, health services and other public services.In rural areas, women who are left behind in the villages have to undertake household chores and care work, in addition to heavy labour in agriculture and raising poultry or vegetables.In recent years, with the feminisation of agriculture, the issue of land rights of rural women has also become crucial. Althoughwomen make up 65% of the rural labour force, they occupy only 1-2 % of local decision-making positions.

Gender-based violence

In recent years, areas of concern extended from domestic violence (including marital rape), sexual harassment in the workplace and violence in intimate relationships to sexual assault, rape, trafficking in women and girls (including cross-border trafficking), and so on. There are many initiatives and efforts being made by the government, women's rights advocates and legal practitioners to address this issue.

Women's health, including sexual and reproductive health and rights 

This issue is integrally linked with other women's rights issues, such as gender-based violence, economic empowerment and participation in public life.Rural and migrant women are facing health problems attributed to poverty, coercion in family planning programmes, early marriage and early childbearing, environmental pollution, violence against women, and lack of access to health services. Urban women and women workers are also exposed to various occupational hazards. Another notable health issue concerning urban women in recent years is complications arising from cosmetic surgery, the demand for which is due in large part to the commercialisation and sexualisation of women's bodies.Again, there is a disparity between rural and urban women in terms of their access to health services. Despite the fact that rural women encounter various physical and mental health problems, 70% of China's health resources are allocated to the cities.

Women's economic empowerment

In the Mao era the dogmatic theory on women's liberation claimed that economic independence is a premise of women's liberation. Nowadays more people believe that for a woman, 'good performance in work is not as important as marrying well'. In China's booming economy, the number of women in employment is constantly on the rise. But the income gap between men and women is widening. Women are also disproportionately concentrated in labour-intensive, low-income jobs, and in the informal sector which offers no social security and benefits.

Who are the main players in setting the women's rights agenda?

The Chinese Communist Party and the state continue to play the leading or dominant role in improving women's rights and gender equality, in particular, through the national mechanismfor the advancement of women. The National Working Committee on Women and Children under the State Council (NWCWC)  formulates and implements the National Programmes for Women's Development and related laws and policies, and allocates needed resources on priority issues.

The All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) is a mass organisation of women from all ethnicities and sections that seeks the further liberation of women under the leadership of the Communist Party. It is also a bridge and link of the party and government with the masses of women. ACWF, the biggest NGO in China, is an umbrella organisation with a large national network, from the provincial and township level down to the villages. Given its nationwide network, legitimacy and leverage, it influences the decision-making process, plays a pivotal role in mobilising women to participate in development and influences policies on women's rights and gender equality.

Also, there are emerging autonomous and grassroots women's NGOs in China catalysed by the 4th World Conference on Women and NGO Forum held in Beijing in 1995. These NGOs include women's studies centres in research institutes and universities, self-organised groups or networks that provide services for women, as well as advocacy organisations, for example, Beijing Zhongze Women's Legal Counselling & Service Centre (formerly Peking University Women's Law Studies & Legal Aid Centre),Red Maple Women's Counselling Hotlines, Home of Migrant Girls and Tongxin Hope Home for migrant women, National Women's Network against AIDS for women living with HIV/AIDS, Combating Domestic Violence Network, the Media Monitoring Network for Women, just to name a few. Some organisations simultaneously engage in research, service provision and advocacy. The issues they address range from poverty reduction, education, health, HIV/AIDS and violence against women to environmental protection, migrants' rights and rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Compared to the government-led women's development programmes, NGOs strive to apply a rights-based approach in compliance with the international human rights framework in their initiatives to address issues of inequality, discrimination and violence against women. Women's NGOs have been using the international human rights mechanism and instruments, such as drafting shadow reports to monitor the government's commitments under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action. They also conduct gender training for government officials, development practitioners and NGOs, as a means of advocating for the mainstreaming and integrating of gender into the development programmes for poverty reduction, HIV/AIDS prevention, and educational projects. The efforts of NGOs have also been dedicated to gender awareness raising and mobilisation of public participation, especially for the youth. From 2008 to 2011, the alliance of women's NGOs launched the 16 Days Campaign against Violence against Women, which mainly involved university students. The recent activist undertakings such as the 'occupying men's toilets' campaign against domestic violence, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination in employment, were initiated and carried out by young people. With the rapid development of the Internet and new communications technologies, women's NGOs are maximising the use of such methods to generate and disseminate advocacy messages to a larger audience, as well as to counter patriarchal views and perspectives that often dominate public debates on gender-related issues in cyberspace.

Hurdles before feminist activists in moving the women's rights agenda forward

That 'men and women are equal' is the main discourse in China and this is enshrined in state policy and the Constitution and other laws and policies. But this is hardly made known to the public, not even by the high-level decision-makers who are supposed to enforce and implement this policy, except for a few institutions such as ACWF and the National Committee on Population and Family Planning.

The prevailing discourse of 'gender equality' and the progress achieved in the last half-century has unfortunately been misinterpreted in many quarters to say that there is no gender inequality at all. The result of this, in the mindsets of some policy-makers and the general public, is that there is no need to make efforts to promote gender equality and women's rights. This overall insensitivity and denial of the need and urgency to address gender inequality has become a major hurdle that feminist activists face.

Secondly, there is a lack of effective, transparent and inclusive mechanisms for meaningful and full participation of women's NGOs in the decision-making process. Women's federations have played a key role in policy advocacy for many related women's issues and development programmes. Other autonomous and grass-roots women's NGOs are also invited to participate in consultations and negotiations on many relevant issues such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, rural women's development, domestic workers' rights and so on. However, an effective, transparent and inclusive mechanism to ensure the meaningful participation of women NGOs in the policy-making process is needed. Although the work of Chinese women's NGOs has gained significant recognition, the extent to which they can participate is uncertain and depends greatly on many varied external factors, for instance, openness and acceptance of decision-makers towards NGOs, NGO capacities, their relationship with women's organisations, access to relevant information, and the level of sensitivity regarding the issues being discussed. In addition, some government-sponsored NGOs are often co-opted as representatives of all civil society organisations to participate in the policy-making process, which in fact excludes voices from the ground level and grassroots women's organisations that can then get involved only through these mediatory groups.

The third hurdle pertains to the institutionalised and structured gender inequality embedded in the deep-rooted patriarchal culture. Many activists have come to realise that gender inequality and injustice are caused not only by traditional patriarchal culture, but also by the institutionalised discriminatory policies that strengthen rather than challenge or subvert them. To reconstruct a culture that entails respect for gender equality and women's rights as core values has been a top priority for feminist activists. For example, feminist scholars and activists are reassessing the practice of family planning policy that allows rural families whose first child is a girl to have a second child, and seek to tackle the root cause of son preference by changing the rules, policies and cultural practices in rural communities that favour boys over girls. Meanwhile, campaigns against domestic violence are challenging the prevailing culture of tolerance for domestic violence and the binary thinking regarding the private-public divide.

Last but not least, women NGOs are facing legal barriers and financial constraints. Despite calls for relaxing the NGO registration policy, constraints in registration remain the biggest barrier to NGO development in China. Only 10% of civil society organisations are registered as non-profit organisations at the Ministry of Civil Affairs; 90% are either not registered or registered in the business sector under the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, which means they are not eligible for tax exemption and other benefits for non-profit organisations. Like many other NGOs, women's groups, which are highly dependent on funding from foreign donors, also face financial constraints. Among these groups, advocacy and grassroots organisations are the hardest hit. The former have little access to governmental and charitable funds; the latter have no legal status, no tax exemption benefits, and no access and ability to raise resources.

A global perspective

The 4th World Conference on Women provided Chinese women the opportunity to interface with the dynamic transnational feminist movements in the 1990s and their slogan: 'Think globally, act locally.' Chinese feminist activists have been and will continue to creatively apply their experience with global feminist movements, issues and strategies in local activism. Chinese women's organisations are also rethinking some of the issues -gender and trade; migrant workers in transnational corporations, their resistance and struggle; cooperation for social responsibility in China's overseas investments; and cross-border trafficking of women -with a global perspective. The concept of 'glocalisation' requires China's women's movement and organisations to reposition themselves in the global political and economic structure vis-vis multiple power relations and inequality, as well as to advocate for gender equality and social justice in such structures.

It is within such a context that collaboration with Southern feminist activists to mount resistance against profit-driven globalisation, gender inequality and social injustice is a crucial strategy for Chinese women's organising. One good example of this is the collaboration of Chinese feminist activists with a Southern feminist network, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), for strengthening the capacity of Chinese women's groups and civil society in analysis and advocacy on the inter-linkage of gender, economic, ecological and sexual justice. In April 2012, DAWN collaborated with Chinese environ-mental NGO Greenovation Hub and organised a workshop which for the first time brought together feminist activists, environmental groups, development organisations, health organisations and media to discuss the interlinkages in an analytical framework and seek to ensure that women's voices and concerns would not be treated merely as an 'add-on', in both a national and global development framework.               

Cai Yiping, who is currently based in Beijing, is an Executive Committee member of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN). She has served as Executive Director of Isis International (2008-11) and was an Associate Researcher at the Women's Studies Institute of China (2006-08) after a 10-year career as a journalist with China Women's News (1995-2005). The above is an edited version of an article which was first published in the Asian Journal of Women's Studies (Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 113-26). The original article is the text of a presentation at the Ewha Global Empowerment Programme (EGEP), Winter Programme in January 2013 at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Korea.

*Third World Resurgence No. 271/272, Mar/Apr 2013, pp 28-31


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