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Open Debate on Women's Rights

The proposed amendment to the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women was openly and frankly discussed by its creators at a forum on Thursday last week.

The forum, organized by an NGO, China Women News, was an opportunity for the legal experts working with the government on the amendment to express their own views about its content, and to hear the public's reaction to it.

The amendment has recently been the subject of intensive media attention. Hailed as a significant step forward in gender relations, the change will establish a comprehensive body of regulations protecting all aspects of women's rights, including political, educational and work rights.

It also outlaws sexual harassment in China for the first time.

The amendment, brought to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in late June, has been a work in progress since late 2003, under the guidance of a panel of experts selected by the government to conduct in-depth research and draft a proposal document.

Three members of this panel, professors Chen Mingxia, a researcher on law and marriages at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Xia Yinlan, law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, and Li Mingshun, director of the Department of Law, Chinese Women's Institute, were present at Thursday's forum to discuss the progress of the amendment in front of an audience of women's rights activists.

Speaking about the amendment they have helped to draw up over the past year, professors Chen, Xia and Li were upbeat, asserting that it represented meaningful progress for women's rights, and brought the country a step closer to achieving gender equality.

But despite a generally positive outlook, the experts were quick to point out that problems remain in combating sexual harassment, abortion and representation of women in government.

Sexual harassment will for the first time be recognized as a crime and become punishable by law, a development long-awaited by 79 per cent of women who say they face harassment in the workplace, according to a survey.

The experts working on the amendment, however, have been frustrated by the difficulty of defining exactly what constitutes sexual harassment a problem with which governments all over the world have struggled.

Most countries still lack a legal definition of sexual harassment, and hence efficient mechanisms to combat it.

In the United States, it was not until the mid-1970s that sexual harassment came to be recognized by law, and only in 1980 did the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission publish guidelines defining harassment.

Europe has been even slower to establish a legal basis for combating sexual harassment. So far the United Kingdom is one of the few European Union countries with laws expressly banning harassment.

China is yet to find its own solution, though experts are under pressure to do so. As Professor Xia Yinyuan pointed out: "Without a safe working environment, women cannot work well."

Abortion remains another thorny issue for lawmakers. Selective abortion of female foetuses and female infanticide have resulted in a conspicuous gender imbalance. According to China's fifth national census compiled in 2004, the ratio stands at 100 women for every 117 men.

Urgent action is needed to redress this discrepancy, but lawmakers are confronted with the problem that selective abortion cannot be controlled without blanket restrictions on all terminations, as there is no way to prove the grounds on which a woman decides to have an abortion.

Legal experts are unwilling to enforce these sorts of restrictions, believing women should have freedom of choice in childbearing.

It seems the best that can be hoped for is that with changing attitudes to the status of women in China, the favouritism male babies enjoy will gradually disappear, and with it the motivation for gender-selective abortion.

Another problem China shares with other countries, and which the amendment falls short of resolving, is under-representation of women in government. Only 2 per cent of top-level cadres are female.

China has no government department specifically devoted to women's affairs and the advocacy of women's rights.

In the UK, women's affairs are covered by the Equal Opportunities Commission, with its mission "to eliminate sex discrimination in 21st century Britain." Although not a government department, it receives a substantial proportion of its funding from the government.

China relies on NGOs such as the All-China Women's Federation, which works closely with the United Nations Development Fund for Women, and on various smaller NGOs including the China Women's News, the organizers of Thursday's forum.

Such events offer an important opportunity for the public to give feedback on government work, and, along with channels such as the government's interactive website, constitute a much-needed addition to the more formal NPC consultations that took place in late June.

The opportunity for public comment is, however, limited. The practical impact of the amendment ultimately rests upon its wording and the precision with which regulations are set out, but the documents are not yet available for public inspection.

Work on the amendment is still in the draft stage and will go through two more rounds of deliberations by top NPC legislators in the coming months.

(China Daily July 20, 2005)

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