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Gender 'In'-Equality?

A recent survey conducted by China Youth Daily showed that 64.5 percent of those surveyed think that men and women are now much closer to true equality than ten years ago. A total of 850 people took part in the survey conducted on China Central Television's ePanel service.  

According to the survey, 21.9 percent of the participants think that gender equality in China is more evident than in other countries; 31.5 percent think it's not as evident; and 46.6 percent responded "Hard to Tell."

The Economist, a leading British publication, reported that a survey on the international gender equality situation conducted by the World Economic Forum in 2005 showed that China is at the "medium" mark. China was considered to be even more "gender equal" than developed countries like Japan and Italy with respect to economic status, political rights, health care, and education. 

According to Gu Xiulian, vice chairperson of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) and president of the All-China Women's Federation, women's development in China has seen great progress since 1995 when the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing.

The white paper "Gender Equality and Women's Development in China" issued by the State Council on August 24 traces this development. The white paper gives an account of the equal rights that women share with men, and women's development in nine specific areas including politics, economy, culture, status in society, and family life.

What is gender equality?

Although "gender equality" has become a mainstream topic of discussion, different people have different ideas about what the term actually means and to what extent men and women are to be considered equal.

An extreme example of society striving for equality could be the "standing WC" for women that opened in Xi'an on July 28. Although the restroom designer's motive was to make using the toilet more convenient for women who cannot move about freely or easily, this new WC could be said to symbolize what gender equality means to the ordinary person.

According to China Youth Daily survey, 26.5 percent of the participants tended to believe that "gender equality" means that women can do what men can, and men should also do what women can.

Another expression, "gender freedom", seems to be debunking traditional views of what women should like or how they ought to behave. Milking it for all it's worth, the tomboy image seems to have gained popularity with some help from pop culture including My Sassy Girl, a Korean film, and Super Girl, a recently concluded TV talent quest where a boyish-looking girl took the top prize.

The term "gender freedom" is an attempt at denying or minimizing gender differences.

But some survey participants held that to place too much emphasis on gender equality or freedom is not really equality at all. It is merely a case of women trying to be men when they are, in fact, different.

Others agreed with the idea of encouraging women to return to their "traditional" roles.

According to a survey of 2,750 working women in Urumqi, capital city of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, about 80 percent wanted to be housewives.

The Beijing +10 Declaration issued on August 31 points out that equality between women and men means equality in their integral rights and worth as human beings. About 89.2 percent of respondents in the China Youth Daily survey believe that equality between women and men also means equality in terms of rights, opportunities and responsibilities.

Gender inequality: from politics to family life

People might not agree with one another on what equality is. But few would disagree on what constitutes inequality.

According to the China Youth Daily survey, 77.3 percent believe the problem that needs immediate attention is the discrimination women face in the job market. Economic equality is one of the fundamental rights. But "Men only" is a common "prerequisite" to be found at job fairs, for example. Further, women are more likely to be laid off than men; women tend to earn less than men get even for the same job.

Another 53.4 percent believe the inequality that exists in the political arena needs to be resolved. Although half the population is female, only 9.9 percent of senior officials are women, and only 20.2 percent of the 10th NPC representatives are women.

A further 43.1 percent believe that inequalities in education need to be addressed. In many parts of China, especially in the poorer rural areas, girls are more likely to either drop out of school or not go to school altogether.

Then there is a 37.1 percentage of respondents who believe that a woman's status in the family and her role as primary caregiver and homemaker needs to be changed. It is a fact that women now shoulder the responsibility of earning money alongside the men. But men still do little or no housework. In most families, women have to juggle between earning an income and tending to the housework.

It is also important to note that in rural communities, daughters do not share equal rights to a family's inheritance as sons do.

Finally, 36.8 percent believe that a female's right to life is the fundamental right that must be protected. Birth ratios are now 119.86 males to 100 females. If this archaic trend to eliminate female births is allowed to continue, serious societal imbalances and problems await the country. 

Mindset change only way to achieve true equality

A change in mindset might be the most effective way of achieving true equality, but it is also the hardest. In 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. It was then that the Chinese government promised to the world that gender equality would be made a basic state policy. Ten years on, very few leaders recognize or acknowledge this "basic state policy", according to Gu Xiulian.

It was only this year that laws were amended to incorporate a legal protection of women's rights and interests based on the Constitution of the People's Republic of China.

Progress this might be but it is realistic to say that China, an admittedly traditional and male-dominated society, has a long way to go before it achieves true gender equality.

(China.org.cn by Li Xiaohua, September 12, 2005)

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