Two new hotlines are putting Chinese women in touch with their legal rights.
The telephone helplines are backed by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) and opened in March this year on a limited trial operation.
In a country of more than 630 million women, gender equality is a pressing issue.
The two new hotlines advise women struggling with marital, family or personal rights problems, let them know what their rights are and put them in touch with organizations that can help.
One line is dedicated to dealing with calls from victims of domestic violence.
By the end of September, the two hotlines, which expanded across 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities in August, had received more than 20,000 calls.
The hotlines have come about because of the changing nature of Chinese society.
"The number of complaints we have received from women about their treatment has shown an obvious increase over the years, putting a great deal of pressure on the ACWF," said Ji Fengwei, assistant director of the organization's legal aid centre.
The hotlines provide a smooth channel for complaints, improve efficiency and help to better protect women's rights, he said.
A middle-aged woman surnamed Cao in Shanghai was laid off last year. Her husband often beat her. In desperation Cao called the hotline. She was encouraged to find another job and to seek protection against her violent husband.
Last year Shu Lijuan, a woman in Shanghai, lost her job and went through a divorce. With the help of hotline volunteers, she attended household management training classes organized by the local women's federation. Now, she has not only found a new job, but has also become a hotline volunteer herself, the Shanghai-based Liberation Daily reported.
The helpline has also opened on the Internet at www.12338.cn.
The website has received more than 130 online inquiries.
Online inquiries have covered politics, cultural education, marriage and family, labour protection, property and personal rights.
A legal aid fund has also been established.
The hotlines and website offer a faster, cheaper and more convenient way of dealing with complaints than previously, when women had to write letters or visit the ACWF in person.
Marriage and family problems top the list of enquiries.
Of these, divorce is the most common subject, with domestic violence second.
Only a small number of calls relate to sexual harassment, but they are enough to show that the issue has come to people's attention.
Sexual harassment harms victims' physical and psychological health as well as their working lives.
The Women's Legal Rights Protection Law passed on August 28 by the 17th session of the 10th National People Congress Standing Committee, is to be implemented from December 1.
The revised law further enforces the protection of women and makes the equality of men and women a basic State policy.
As well as revising aspects such as childbirth insurance and the retirement system, it also adds a legal framework for dealing with sexual harassment and domestic violence.
Situation in Dalian
In Dalian, a port city in Northeast China's Liaoning Province, the hotline opened on 18 August, receiving 30 to 40 calls each day during its first week.
Calls now average about 10 per day.
According to Wang Dongkun, head of the rights and interests department under the Dalian Municipal Women's Federation, most of the callers are married women over 25 years old. Hot topics are labour disputes and marriage.
"It shows that in modern society, people are increasingly concerned about the quality of their marriages," she said.
One woman found her husband was having an affair and decided to divorce. She wanted to know how to make sure she did not lose out in the divorce settlement.
Another woman, who was beaten up by her husband, wanted to know whether she could sue him.
Hotline staff offer information to try and settle or minimize disputes, Wang said.
The centre has six enquiry platforms, one for psychological consulting and the other five for legal questions.
Consultants come from the government departments of the industry and commerce administration, the procuratorate, the court and justice bureau, and academic institutions.
The centre plans to establish a volunteer team to better serve women 20 experts and volunteers have already joined.
Experts and volunteers are engaged in researching women's rights and training new volunteers in women's rights, hotline answering skills and domestic violence issues.
To meet the needs of women, face-to-face consultations are being introduced.
The hotline numbers are 12338 for legal rights enquiries and 16838198 for questions about domestic violence.
(China Daily November 9, 2005)