UN Women: The state of gender equality in China

We speak to Julie Broussard, Country Programme Manager at UN Women, China

Bringing China’s domestic violence epidemic into the open is no mean feat. As the world marks International Women’s Day, Helen Roxburgh speaks to Julie Broussard, Country Programme Manager at UN Women, China.


What are the main pressures facing women in China today?

One of the main pressures is the work-life balance. China has one of the highest labour force participation rates for women in the world. And yet, there aren’t a lot of measures to make it easier for women to have a baby – or babies – and to also work. Early childhood care is very expensive in the cities, and if they don’t have a family member to step in to take care of young children, the average woman cannot afford to pay childcare.


There’s only 98 days of mandatory maternity leave, and China has almost no allowance for paternity leave. In some places, men can get ten days off when their wife has a baby, but that isn’t very much. Data shows that the burden of childcare in China still falls very heavily on women. And there are studies that show that this burden is affecting women’s career choices, and they are tending to choose a career option that is not so demanding time-wise. Men don’t have this pressure on them because they’re not expected to help take care of the children on a daily basis.


So what are the main areas of focus for UN Women, China?

We have three main areas of work in China – increasing women’s political participation and leadership; women’s economic empowerment; and stopping violence against women and girls.


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How do you encourage women’s political participation?

We work very closely with the All-China Women’s Federation on a programme to increase women’s political participation, primarily focusing on the local level, on rural women. We provide training to increase their capacity to handle decision making and work with local, regional and some national government leaders to set in place certain policies and measures that would help encourage women’s political participation.


At the local level, women’s participation is around the world average, and the percentage of women on village committees is about 22 percent. But female village leaders are only around 2 percent nationally, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.


Is gender equality improving on the whole in China then?

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It’s a mixed bag. If you look at the trend since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, gender equality has improved dramatically. The Marriage Law raised the status of women, there’s a lot more women in the workforce compared to other Asian countries, there’s basically gender parity in education.


All around China, with the exception of maybe a few remote areas, girls are accessing the same education that boys are. This is a great foundation for gender equality. The labour force participation rates are also a big force for gender equality – women have more independence if they have their own source of income.


But the labour force participation rate peaked in 1993, and since then has been coming down. My own feeling is that more women are opting to stay at home and take care of their children, and this is because they can’t afford childcare. In the past, the employer would provide almost everything for the employees, and that included subsidised childcare. But market reforms from 1993 meant childcare benefits were mostly done away with. Plus, there’s a big rural urban divide. On average, things are definitely better for urban women than for rural women.


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So if women’s rights are generally better in the city, will urban migration naturally help to bring about gender equality?

Yes, I do think overall the trend of rural women moving to the cities is empowering. They encounter alternative social structures which tend not to be as discriminatory as the social structures they’ve left behind in their villages. And they can, if they work hard and are lucky, gain a certain degree of economic independence. However, rural women who migrate to the cities still face a hurdle that urban women don’t. Migrant rural women are more likely to be exploited, and I think employers assume that they just don’t know their rights.


How serious is domestic abuse here?

It’s more widespread than people realise. The official figure the government uses is that 24.7 percent of married women have experienced domestic violence at least once, so that’s about a quarter of households. At the UN, we suspect the figure is higher than that. When we’ve done local studies, we’ve found the figure to be around 40 percent. It’s a hidden phenomenon because the vast majority of victims do not come forward.


How do you go about tackling this?

We’re working with the government to provide co-ordinated services for victims of domestic violence, when they do choose to come forward. This means having the health sector work with the police, and work with the judiciary, and work with civil affairs, to make sure there’s a quality response to victims, and they don’t drop out of the system while their cases are brought forward. But we’re also trying to do a lot of public awareness raising to make victims aware that they do have rights, that domestic violence is a crime, and to make perpetrators aware that there will be consequences.


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Have there been many cases of perpetrators going to prison?

Not enough, sadly. There was the case of Dong Shanshan, a young woman who married a rich, older businessman in Beijing. She ended up in hospital a few times, and although she tried to get police help it wasn’t effective. Finally, he beat her to death. When the case was brought to court, he was sentenced to only six years for what was effectively murder. There was a bit of an outcry over this, saying that the sentence had been too light.


If we were having this conversation in ten years time, what do you think would have changed?

China just passed a new law on domestic violence, so I would hope there would be a bigger public awareness of the issue. I hope we would see more victims coming forward and getting proper legal redress, and we would see more perpetrators getting proper punishments.


Julie Broussard is speaking about women's rights in China on Monday March 7, 7pm at The Tavern bar and grill. Click here for full event details.

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