Rural women venture into politics in China
Ten years ago, Jia Junqiao became the first woman village head of Longju in North China's Hebei Province.
She won the village election to become head of the village committee - the grassroots administration for farmers' self governance.
In the past 10 years of Jia's leadership, the first road has been built, wells have been dug and the local primary school has been repaired, a job put off for years by her male predecessors.
Jia, 50, shared her decade-long experience last week at a forum in Beijing of rural Chinese women who have won prizes for creativity in rural life from the Women's World Summit Foundation.
Since 1995, a total of 34 rural Chinese women have been awarded the prize, for their efforts in improving the lives of people in rural China.
Jia's story is but one of the many shared by rural Chinese women today as they try to play a more active role not only in improving their own livelihood but also in local public affairs.
In fact, increasing rural women's political participation has become an objective for a three-year gender and development programme jointly conducted by the China Association for NGO Co-operation (CANGO) and the local women's federation in Linqu County, East China's Shandong Province.
The programme was granted a US$210,000 donation from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
According to the description of the programme on CANGO's website, only women's equal participation in politics can achieve democracy and equality between women and men; help establish a rational democratic system; guarantee the representation of different interest groups; broaden the scope of issues concerning public welfare and prevent the waste of human resources.
"Women have made great contributions to economic development," said Zhang Hongman, a UNIFEM official in China and organizer of another forum last week in Beijing.
It is especially true in the past few years as many of the young and middle-aged rural men have gone to cities for work. The women, who remain behind, tend to the farm and take care of the children and elderly.
Rural women have become the backbone of agricultural production and family life in rural areas, Zhang said.
"However, this will not automatically bring about an increase in the participation of women in politics," Zhang added.
Changes in Linqu
UNIFEM and CANGO could not have picked a better place to attempt their programme than Linqu.
Linqu County is located in the middle of Shandong, where women make up 49 per cent of the total population.
"Shandong is the home of Confucius (551- 479 BC). The doctrines of Confucius and Mencius (372-289 BC), which disapprove of women's participation in public affairs, still have enormous influence on rural people there," said Yin Xiurong, chairwoman of the Linqu County Women's Federation, who has taken direct charge of the programme.
Yin and the other programme staff carried out surveys in villages, talking with township and village heads as well as villagers, women and men alike, to learn about their views on expanding women's participation in local public affairs.
"Many women had a strong desire to play a part in discussing and deciding public issues," Yin said. "Some said they'd be willing to take up administrative posts if the channels were open.
"However, most men said local women already enjoyed a pretty high social status. They grumbled, 'Isn't it already high enough'?" Yin recalled.
Women's voices are largely unheard or are rejected outright when it comes to decision-making in rural China.
It is common to see a whole bunch of men enveloped in a haze of cigarette smoke discussing village affairs such as how many seeds to buy next year while the women chat in their homes and courtyards.
The project took the form of a series of interactive training courses on gender and development, in the county seat as well as in villages. The courses were open to both women and men.
Classes usually started late and ended early during the farming low-season, so the women still had time to finish their housework.
Every class included two co-ordinators and 25 students at most, so all students had a chance to voice their concerns.
During the courses, participants shared views on such issues as how women identify themselves and how they see their villages.
They discussed and argued, or even drew pictures to illustrate their views when writing proved difficult. They also learned some fresh ideas about gender equality as opposed to the traditional Confucian ideology.
More than 3,000 women and men - including officials and business people - in Linqu participated in the courses.
"Many women said they have become more positive in decision making after the classes," said Han Henan, a professor with Beijing-based China Women's University, who acted as a co-ordinator in a few sessions.
Apart from discussions on gender issues, the organizers also invited agronomists and other experts to talk about new agricultural technologies and management skills.
"It is good to see many women begin to feel they can be as outstanding as men in both farm work and public affairs," Yin Xiurong said.
A number of local male officials were also invited to participate in the interactive programme.
"They are becoming aware that there is a gender equality issue in formulating policies and they said they would take such an issue into consideration," said Zhang Huiyu, vice-chairwoman of the Linqu County People's Political Consultative Conference.
Linqu County recently announced a series of affirmative plans, among them making sure that every grassroots committee of a village with a population of above 1,000 has at least one woman member.
Despite the progress, people involved in the project believe there is still a long way to go before the ideas of gender equality take root in Linqu, as well as the whole country.
"The project has ended. Yet there is still a long way to go for us to further promote mainstream gender equality and women's participation in politics in rural areas," said Zhang Hongman.
Larger role for women
As head of the village, Jia Juntao also organized a tree-planting group composed of women villagers in Longju.
Not only did they have to fetch water from the mountains 1.5 kilometres away every day. They also braved men's laughs and ridicule and put up with the loss of tree saplings at night.
They persisted and have turned the rocky mountains surrounding their small village into a green sea of fruit trees.
They have earned both the money and the respect from the men of the village, Jia said.
Moreover, Jia sees changes in the village women.
A growing number of them are becoming more independent, Jia said.
In the past, women often listened to their husbands during elections for the village chiefs, Jia said. Now they make their own decisions, and can even become candidates for roles leading the village.
"Rural women are an untapped source. The world would be totally different if
all their potential was exploited," says Xie Lihua, chief editor of the
Beijing-based Rural Women Knowing All magazine.