Holding up half the sky?

Photo by K. Sawyer

To mark International Women’s Day, a recent UNDP report has stated the continent is ‘missing’ 96 million women. In the report, entitled ‘Power, Voice and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific’, females were warned against “taking survival for granted.”

The staggering figure was reached by calculating the actual sex ratio in the continent’s population compared to what it would be, were equal treatment to be given to the sexes during pregnancy, birth and afterwards. However, the figure itself was also skewed by the outliers of China and India’s huge birth gender disparities. Between them, they made up around 85 million of the final 96 million.

Female infanticide and sex selective abortions have ravaged the continent. According to the report, East Asia has the world’s highest male-female sex ratio at birth, with 119 boys born for every 100 girls. Global averages currently sit at 107 boys for every 100 girls.

In terms of China, research published last year in the BMJ also showed that this imbalance peaks in rural areas, and will continue be affected since women are ‘marrying out’ into cities. UCL’s Therese Hesketh, one of the paper’s co-authors, told The Guardian,

In the past, migrants have tended to go back home to permanently settle. But women [now] are finding partners in urban areas and not going back. Men are unable to do that. Urban women will not marry a migrant man; men can’t marry up.

Besides this imbalance, the report also revealed how women’s access to health, education and employment, their political participation and protection from violence are dire in South Asia in particular. The report said,

Nearly half of the countries in South Asia, and more than 60 percent of those in the Pacific, have no laws against domestic violence. Nor are there many provisions against sexual harassment in workplaces, though 30 to 40 percent of working women report experiencing verbal, physical or sexual abuse.

But, highlighting the merits of East Asia, a piece by Ananth Krishnan in The Hindu today proclaimed China’s achievements over India’s in improving the social and economic status of women.

Women’s participation in the labour force in China is now 70 per cent, far higher than the 35 per cent in South Asia and the global average of 53 per cent. Life expectancy has risen to 75 years, while female literacy rates are more than double India’s.

True, sweeping advances have been made in empowering women since the dawn of the PRC in 1949. As part of China’s intense industrialisation (and boosted by an ideology affirming gender equality), women were encouraged to enter the workforce from the 1950s onwards, accounting for a large part of China’s subsequent boom.

But, in addition to the said bleak landscape of a gender imbalance, another area where women are not empowered in China (as opposed to other parts of Asia) is politics, Krishnan claimed. Today, only 10% of the CCP’s 371-member Central Committee, its highest body, are women.

Lest we forget some of the other dire areas women in China find themselves in. It has only been five years since China outlawed sexual harrassment and the PRC is the only country in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than for men. Further, recent figures released by the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) revealed authorities receive 50,000 annual complaints of domestic violence (though of course, this could also mean that women are speaking out more about such cases, rather than the crime itself increasing). All of these realities manifest themselves in a society that is still incredibly traditional and steeped in Confucian ideology that upheld women as subservient to men.

Plus, as pointed out by Shanghaiist’s commander in chief, Elaine Chow, Krishnan does not address why this figure of women in the CCP’s Central Committee is so small. She says,

Most people, unless they’re born into political families (and then they tend to be boys), are kind of afraid to get into politics here. …In politics, getting anywhere up to the top requires some combination of sneaky maneuvering and guanxi because, let’s be honest here, they don’t promote based solely on merit.

But it will be some time before a greater interest in and access to political participation among women in China grows. The wider context of the country’s gender inequality also shows slow progress, unlike the breakneck speed China’s economic development is moving at.

UNDP head Helen Clark concluded that the whole continent is at a crossroads. “Whether gender equality is pushed aside or pursued with greater energy amid the economic downturn depends on actions taken or not taken now by governments.”

Blaming blame culture

 

Over the weekend I saw this peaching-to-the-converted piece by Nick Cohen in The Observer. Lamenting the UK’s shameful rape conviction rate of around 6%, Cohen placed most of the blame on the jury:

A representative sample of the people who pass them [men] in the street, takes their account of themselves literally and says that, if the defendant is really so brassy and sassy and in control of her life, then rape isn’t the responsibility of the rapist and the victim must pay.

Sadly, Cohen is not exaggerating. The UK’s blame culture is still in full swing when it comes to rape. In 2005, Amnesty International published statistics showing that 30% of Britons believe a rape victim would be partially responsible for her ordeal if she was drunk, dressed provocatively, or had had several sexual partners. Of course, here the obvious issues would be defining how drunk is drunk, what constitutes provocative attire and how many sexual partners are ‘several’ or ‘too many’.

The courtroom also provides the arena to drive this blame culture home: speaking at a public trial I attended in early 2008, rape victims affiliated with Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town, north London, called their violating and intrusive court cases ‘a second rape’, a process they would rather not repeat were their ordeals ever to happen again. The bottom line seemed to echo ‘you’re asking for it.’

China is sitting in the same trap. One recent example comes from the light sentencing of two civilian police assistants charged with the rape of a young girl in Huzhou, Zheijang province. Their case garnered attention because the judged ruled the crime a “temporary” one that occurred “on a whim.” The judge ruled that, although the two officers had raped the teen, having wined and dined her and then taken her back to a hotel to allegedly “let her sober up”, the act itself was never a part of their game plan. Plus, since they turned themselves in, they were in the market for a fair amount of sympathy. Crucially, their crime was treated as a spontaneous and whimsical time-filling activity, trivialising the domination, intimidation and horror embroiled in rape itself.

Examples of blame culture were evident in the rampant discussions that followed the news of this “temporary” (i.e. not pre-meditated) crime. Blatant misogyny was found on various blogs and comment boards, with the victim being told she was a ‘bitch’ who ‘had it coming to her’, and that the case sat in a sexual act twilight zone, blurred by the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by all involved. Alongside such comments, however, were also instances of outrage at the judge’s sentencing. One contributor from Tianya wrote,

the law has become a plaything in the hands of judges. Being born in a China this terrifying is too frightening.

Of course, my comparison can only go so far since the social realities for women in China and women in Britain are vastly different. The gender inequalities suffered by women in the PRC are far more blatant and less widely challenged than those in the UK. For instance, the concept of face bears a heavy weight in China: a colleague told me about a domestic violence crisis centre that had opened in Beijing last year, but due to shame and embarrassment embedded in a far wider socio-cultural context, no victims came forward.

Yet, the two countries also share the reality that rape is a topic so often trivialised by a lack of understanding and an immense stigmatisation of women, providing a fertile ground for a blame culture to blossom. This is our twenty-first century version of reinforcing female subjugation and limiting female social mobility: if women are blamed for rape due their alcohol intake, the freedom to dress as they wish and the illustriousness of their sexual past, then they are subsequently being confined even further into boxes of ‘appropriate behaviour’.

This is not to say women are or should be void of any responsibility. On the contrary, we need to understand and respect ourselves and our bodies by being in control and not putting ourselves at risk. We should know how much Grey Goose it takes for us to become paralytic.

But with this comes an even wider responsibility on the part of society to draw the difference between sex (i.e. consent on both sides) and rape (i.e. domination and control on one side over the other). In China’s case, of course, this is easier said than done, given that sex itself is a topic so rarely discussed (unlike in the UK), and sex education remains drastically poor (not too dissimilar from the UK). Online, however, more liberal attitudes and curiosities have a chance to run wild, as shown in this recent, if tasteless, series on chinaSMACK. The online arena, away from traditional social constraints of offline life, may well provide an environment for more diverse understandings to germinate.

All this talk may be purely hypothetical; there is clearly a lot of work to be done in breaking down gender barriers and pointing fingers on both sides of the globe. In theory, a deeper awareness of the severity of rape could deter us away from an all-too-easy blame culture. But in practice, we continue going around in circles bordered by misogyny and trivialised understandings.