Are Mothers Happy or Not?

Jiang Wandi

The Chinese mass media nowadays frequently feature reportage and debates about women's lives. As with their foreign counterparts these discussions cover everything from whether or not it is illegal to lay off female workers when an enterprise is suffering from losses, how a successful business woman could create a friendly image in family and society, why many people have less critical attitude toward adultery, and which is more acceptable in social life --strong make-up or being as natural as possible. However, none of these topics have relevance to one part of Chinese womanhood -- those living in poor rural areas. For them the main, and only, concern is to manage the next meal enough for all family members.

Luo Guiying, a middle-aged woman living in Gaopo Village of Puding County, Guizhou Provinces is typical. With three children and a tiny O.2 hectare piece of land, the family did not have enough to eat by relying upon the poor land with its humble yield. Luo and her husband wove bamboo baskets night and day, but the earnings were too little to entirely solve their food problem. As a wife and mother for over 1O years, Luo was always the last to sit at the dining table, taking what was left over. Consequently she was physically weak because of malnutrition and stomachache.

Her bad luck came to an unexpected end two years ago when she acquired a small loan of 2OOO yuan. Luo spent all the money buying a number of piglets and sold them for good profit on the market several months later. After returning the loans she still had enough to maintain the pig raising business. Luo feels that life has become manageable for the first time saying: "Now my husband and mother-in-law smile at me often."

The loan rescuing Luo from the previously endless nightmare was provided by a poverty-alleviation project called the Program of Happiness. Luo is one of 10,000 rural mothers who have benefited from the program up to now.

Initiated in early 1995 by three organizations --the China Population Welfare Foundation, the China National Family Planning Association and the Chinese Population Gazette, the charity program was not designed to target all the people in poverty but only poor mothers.

China still has 40 million population living in abject poverty in rural areas according to l998 statistics. Among them are about l million mothers. Being consigned to various duties at the same time such as reproduction, bread earning and preparing meals for husbands, children and even parents-in-law, these women are the last to enjoy life. They are put in an even inferior situation than male adults since most are half-illiterates cut off from information beyond their villages, that would enable them to enter the mainstream of the life.

The Program of Happiness has sought a successful way to help the poor mothers through micro credit ranging from 1,OOO to 5000 yuan. This is enough for them to run a profitable household business such as raising oxen, sheep, planting fruit trees, or making bamboo ware and embroidery. For example, nearly every farmhouse in some rural areas of Guizhou Province is good at making bean curd, a popular food on the local market. By providing just a 500-yuan loan for a poor mother can help her open a small business of her own producing bean curd.

Sometimes, after a production project is designed for poor mother, program staff will lend her the necessary materials such as oxen, sheep and feed. The loan may be repaid in one to two years, and the money she pays off will immediately be given to the next eligible women. This practice operating in a village or community creates pressure on the poor mother to pay off her loan in time, since her neighbors may be impatiently waiting.

To draw up a correct list of the poor mothers needing urgent help and finding them an adaptable development project often poses the most difficult task for the Chinese organizations devoted to the poverty relief effort. The Program of Happiness is a successful exception, however, due mainly to its sponsor, the China National Family Planning Association, which has a well organized network nationwide.

By now, this national organization consists of 1.02 million local bodies with 83 million staff throughout the countryside. The huge organization was established many years ago for promoting the government's family planning policy among farmers and providing rural women with free service in reproduction and medical care. Now that the family planning policy and its implementation have become well known to every Chinese family, the organization's traditional function is declining.

Participating in the work to help poor mothers has galvanized its staff again. Their good information about every household and friendly relationship with various government departments concerned make them the most efficient and convenient tool to carry out the task in the vast rural areas.

The Program of Happiness has become a real part of the women's liberation movement in its implementation. Its slogans call for wiping out poverty, illiteracy and diseases. After the poor mothers qualified for a loan are selected, they must attend a special school which teaches the basic reading and writing and the necessary production skills. Their school marks will determine whether or not they can finally get a loan. Now almost every village where the Program of Happiness operates has established a "mothers' school", in which many women , illiterate but determined to change their fate by relying upon their own efforts, are learning to write the basic words such as "ox", "sheet", "wheat", "river" and “tree".

As a part of the program, the medical service stations of the local family planning associations should provide free medical check-ups and even treatment for the loan applicants to ensure they are healthy enough to achieve their goals. Treatment and the prevention of gynecological diseases in rural areas has been a long-time purpose of the organizations.

Pilot work on the Program of Happiness first started in four counties: Puding in Guizhou Province, Lixian in Gansu Province, Qianshan in Anhui Province and Dali in Shaansi Province. The organizing committee put in 100,000 yuan for each, which was doubled by a matching donation by the county government. About 400 poor mothers in the four counties benefited, and by now 70 percent of them have successfully returned the loan. The second phase covering 15 counties began in March 1996, and the third one benefiting 49 counties started in late 1997.

Except for the initial sum of the Program of Happiness, which came from the China Population Welfare Foundation, all its funds now totaling over 8 million yuan are social donations. The contribution by staff at each level of the China National Family Planning Association is a considerable amount.

However, the great appeal of the program to society does not stop there. The poverty-relief program helping individuals through carefully-designed development projects aroused the interests of many county and even provincial governments, wracking their brain over how to accomplish the state-set poverty-relief goal when faced with budget constraints and inexperienced personnel. For them, the Program of Happiness is really a happy discovery.

By now, quite a number of counties throughout the country have decided to make the Program of Happiness the leading poverty-relief program in their areas, allocating the local government’s poverty-relief loan, development funds and even agricultural development funds under the program’s general control. In Puding County, administrators believed the Program of Happiness was such a hopeful project that it deserved the support of not only a segment of local poverty-relief loans, but also agricultural loans, World Bank loans and the loans from Amity Foundation. As a result, the program expanded swiftly in the county from 200 poor mothers to 3,000. It is estimated that the local funds added to the program throughout the country have so far come to over 20 million yuan.

In 1995, poor mother Chen Xuying in Dongping County, Shandong Province, acquired a 2,000-yuan loan for breeding fish. However, Chen was very ambitious and needed more money for a larger fish pond. Eventually, she was loaned another 5,000 yuan by the local government. In 1996 alone, Chen gained a net income of 6,000 yuan from her breeding business, which completely changed her life. Chen promised: “On returning the debt the next year, I’ll donate 500 yuan to the Program of Happiness.”

Though not trumpeting its success loudly, the Program of Happiness has exerted a profound influence on rural women’s lives and minds. It requires that project applicants must be mothers; the development project must be designed for use by women; and those signing the contract and drawing the money must be the mothers.

Traditionally, a rural woman is a humble figure in family, not seriously regarded as the major bread earner despite her day-and-night labor. The situation has changed dramatically in villages and households where the Program of Happiness is operating. When some husbands, traveling far away from their villages to seek seasonal jobs, heard the surprising news that their wives had got a loan and were starting to run a household business, they couldn’t wait to rush home to provide help.

Rural women used to be a silent group, without a big say in family or public affairs. The Program of Happiness encouraged better-educated women with less children by giving them priority for loans. Consequently, these women have become eloquent orators in their villages often persuading others to read more while not stubbornly giving birth to too many babies.

Wang Guangmei, member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and widow of the late Chinese President Liu Shaoqi, is now director of the Program of Happiness’ organization committee. Explaining the program’s effect on social progress, she said: “The program will at first help raise the status of mothers in their families because of their contribution to the improvement of family life. Mothers being devoted to production while gaining some necessary knowledge are becoming part of the modern society, which will eventually help improve our population quality.”

(Beijing Review)

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