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Some rural Chinese women seek greater role in society U.N. conferences inspire assertiveness; support groups form


BEIJING -- For the millions of rural women who have flooded into China's big cities over the past few years, life can be traumatic. Health problems, legal chicanery and brutal bosses lead many to suicide and prostitution.

But now these women are getting some help. Inspired by two massive United Nations conferences on women held a year ago in Beijing, a group of women has set up the Beijing Home for Migrant Women, the nation's first center where rural women can meet and discuss problems with experts and each other.

Although the Chinese government prevented many women from attending the conferences, which it saw as potentially subversive, many women say the U.N.'s Fourth World Conference on Women and the parallel Non-Governmental Organization's Forum on Women opened their eyes to the needs of rural women.

The meetings, they say, were a watershed in their understanding of how far they lag behind men and how wide the gap is between reality and the male-dominated Communist Party's claim to be women's best friend.

For Xie Lihua, a dynamic magazine editor who helped set up the women's home, the Forum made her aware that other developing countries routinely help rural women adapt to city life.

"I realized that many groups around the world were looking out for the muted voices in society, so I decided to set up something similar in China," Xie said.

Adds co-founder Wu Qing: "People think we need action and need action now."

The establishment of the migrant women's home at least partially allays fears that last year's U.N. meetings would have no effect on Chinese society.

The NGO Forum was a chance for thousands of women around the world to gather in Beijing and share information about how to organize grass-roots health care and help centers.

The more official conference resulted in countries promising measures to help women, especially in the areas of poverty, health and education. Even though many countries have not implemented the plan, it remains an important benchmark that local women can use to measure their governments' commitment.

Afraid that the foreign women were going to spread ideas of democracy and anti-authoritarianism, Beijing's overwhelmingly male rulers stuck the NGO Forum far out of town, claiming that the original venue -- a soccer stadium in the city center -- was structurally unsound. (The stadium has since been in regular use for sporting events.)

Information, ideas seep out

But while dozens of female Chinese activists were denied access to the site, information and ideas seeped out.

"I became much more concerned with issues of development and population in China -- not only the achievements but also the problems," said Xiong Lei, head of the Capital Women's Journalists' Federation.

Xiong said the 1995 meetings caused national newspapers to publish articles on issues that few had thought about before.

For example, recent articles in China Women's Daily, a nationally distributed Communist Party newspaper, have criticized the unrelenting female stereotypes seen on television advertisements.

Xiong's federation has also surveyed the Chinese media, showing the lack of women on the front pages of China's leading newspapers.

Xiong said the conferences also changed the way she researches articles. When she travels to impoverished areas of the country, her male colleagues inevitably interview local male leaders about production figures.

She, however, has started to grill them on the amount of money spent on health care or the number of women in local positions of power.

"The men's articles are always much more boring than mine," she says with a laugh.

Another woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of criticism by authorities, says the U.N. conferences changed the way she does her job. Although she was denied access to the meetings, she read conference materials showing how other countries require that women be properly represented in job-training programs.

Now, in her position allocating money to such programs, she routinely turns down requests that do not include a fair number of women. She estimates, for example, that the Agriculture Department's training programs for new techniques of farming usually have just 15 percent the places reserved for women.

"Most farmers in China are women. The men have left the land for the city," she said. "I want at least 50 percent of those slots going to women or I don't approve it. I never would have dared before last year."

Half-hearted approach

Change is still difficult and slow. In downtown Beijing, for example, the new activity center for the All-China Women's Federation remains a shell. The showpiece building was supposed to have been finished in time for last year's meetings, but money for the project ran out.

Some Chinese women say it symbolizes the government's half-hearted approach to women's issues in China: a pretty but useless landmark to impress foreign visitors.

But at the grass roots, progress is being made.

The Home for Migrant Women, for example, may be one of the first true nongovernment women's organizations in China. Xie and Wu established it in April. Meeting every two weeks in rooms rented from a local newspaper, the home is a discussion group made up of women contacted through employment agencies that hire migrants.

Membership costs 50 cents, a significant amount for the women, who on average earn about $30 a month as housekeepers, roadside fruit vendors or factory workers.

The government has been supportive -- it fears unruly mobs of rural workers and is happy that a group is trying to smooth their transition into urban society. But the organizers have had to come up with their own money, space and staff.

Seed money came from the Ford Foundation, and Wu hopes to raise money from Chinese entrepreneurs. Eventually, the group would like to build a real home for the women and offer orientation courses on city life.

Caught between 2 worlds

At a recent meeting, a confused young worker was comforted by Feng Xiaoshuang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The woman, Wang Lixin, said she felt caught between two worlds: Back home she is urged to settle down and have a family, while in the city she is seen as a backward country bumpkin.

"I feel out of place back home, and that I don't belong here," Wang explained to a group of other rural women at the home.

Giving advice that could apply to urban as well as rural women, Feng said the women shouldn't think of themselves as China's second-class citizens.

"People will only look down on you if you don't respect yourself," Feng said. "Don't be afraid to find out what your rights are and stand up for them. You have as much right to be here as they do."

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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