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Women in the spotlight
By Elyse Singleton (Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-04-20 10:48

The things, both good and bad, that happen in China never cease to surprise me. This time it's back to my old favourite: women and women's issues.

I have heard a lot of things from colleagues and friends on this topic. Sometimes we discuss the differences between our cultures. Sometimes we offer each other advice. Sometimes we just moan about our lot. I thought I had heard it all. The strange stories some mothers tell their daughters about what to do or what not to do during menstruation or pregnancy for example or the whispered questions about various sexual techniques. No, the best was yet to come.

This morning my friend informed me that last Friday three packets of condoms had mysteriously appeared in her desk drawer. We had been discussing pregnancy and contraceptive issues earlier last week, so at first she thought it might have been a little "gift" from me. (At 42 yuan a packet, I had to inform her sadly that I was barely covering my own expenses in this area).

Another sideline gripe, of course, is why are the things so expensive in the first place?

She then found out that other female staff members had received the same delivery. It transpired that these condoms were actually given out by our workplace. They were only given out to staff members who were female. Married, Chinese and female, actually. Now, I understand that in many ways China is still a traditional country, but come on, not only married women have sex.

It's purely puritanical to ignore the fact that single girls do it too. And single girls get pregnant as well. They even - shock, horror - have babies sometimes. Blindly ignoring the fact that this is going on is not going to change it.

Look at what happened with the spread of AIDS. It was allegedly simply something that did not happen in China and now it is an epidemic. Not that I approve, but firstly, if a workplace is going to take the unusual step of giving out contraceptives to its female staff, then it should give them to all female staff. We all have ovaries and wombs.

The next thing that grated was that it was only female staff who received the condoms. Men have sex too. In fact, judging by the funny shape, condoms are made for men to use, not women. I know it is the woman who gets pregnant. I know condoms prevent pregnancy among other things. Yet, men should be taking equal responsibility for contraception as well. I take the Lysistrata approach. No equal responsibility for contraception, no sex.

Then there is the fact that our employer is being very intrusive by interfering in the personal lives of the staff. Choosing to use contraception is a personal decision made by the two people engaged in the particular sexual relationship. The method of contraception, be it condom, pill, IUD, etc, is also the personal choice of those people. It has nothing to do with anyone else.

However, my friend then hit me with another whammy. Our employer had also asked these same women when they were planning to have babies so they could plan it into the working schedule. Now, fertility can be a tricky little bugger sometimes. Some women can get pregnant at the drop of a hat while others may try for years to conceive. It is often not something that can be fitted into a plan.

Certainly, I understand that a workplace has concerns regarding staff on maternity leave. An employee has the responsibility to inform her employers when she is pregnant, but surely anything beyond that is overstepping the boundary. Even my conservative friend who accepts many things that outrage me was annoyed by this prying.

It seems that women's fertility is anybody's business. Another colleague told me her tutor told her she should have a baby. At a push, I can understand her parents discussing this with her, but a tutor?! A tutor is concerned with education, surely, and not his or her students' private life.

Even parents have little right to pressure their children into having babies. A woman's body is her own and it is up to her and her partner to make the decision as to when it is suitable for them to have a child. This should be when they both feel ready or secure enough, not when their parents or anyone else tells them or expects them to. Indeed, in a country with such a large population, people should be encouraged not to have them, or at least not to be considered freaks if they choose not to.

I'd like to make it very clear at this point that I am not anti-contraception. In fact, I think it's wonderful. People of both sexes should be well informed about the choices available and how to use them safely and correctly. Then, the contraception itself should be made easily available and for a low cost, if not for free.

The decision, as I said before, to use it should be made by the couple having sex. If a workplace wishes to offer contraception to its employees, then it should be made available to all who wish to use it and not pressed upon certain members of staff. Our bodies are our own and decisions taken regarding them are our own as well.

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