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.”

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One thought on “Holding up half the sky?

  1. Pingback: Women’s Rights in China « iLook China

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