Wang Xianglan was 13 years old in 2008 when her mother committed suicide, leaving behind a husband and five children living in a rural village in China’s northwestern province of Gansu.
“Before then, I had a happy family,” she says. “I never thought bad things would come. But after my mother committed suicide, everything changed.”
Her older sister dropped out of school immediately, and as the next eldest, Wang was afraid she would also have to leave school.
School is free for all Chinese children up to grade nine. But education is often balanced with other responsibilities, including the need to help with the family farm or with younger siblings.
The educational gap between rural and urban children in China is growing, and now only 40 percent of rural middle school graduates attend high school. Economist Niny Khor of the Asian Development Bank has estimated China’s urban-rural education gap amounts to almost three years of schooling. Of those who drop out, she says, two-thirds are girls.
Because Wang, now 22, was a bright student, her family decided to let her attend both middle and high school. She was then offered a spot at Tianjin Foreign Studies University, more than 900 miles (1,500km) away. “My family was excited – I’m the first girl in the whole village to go to university,” she grins. “But we were very worried about the cost, and my father was trying all sorts of ways to raise money. I started thinking that perhaps I should just give up and stay home to support my younger siblings.”
Then her head teacher called her father and told him about an organization that could help.
In 2013, Wang’s family met with the charity Educating Girls of Rural China (EGRC). The organization gave Wang financial support, and she is now in the final year of her university degree, with her eye on a career in human resources.
Since 2005, EGRC has supported 692 girls, and boasts a 100 percent graduation rate. The charity provides up to 7,000 yuan (about $1,000) per girl toward annual university fees and living costs. It also provides high school sponsorship – annual public high school fees can cost up to 6,000 yuan ($870) per student, a price that is prohibitive for many families.
EGRC founder Ching Tien, who is Chinese and now lives in Canada, says access to education is crucial for adolescent Chinese girls because in more remote areas, if they don’t go to high school, “it’s common that they get married, even unofficially, at 15 or 16.”
Tien says many girls are also told by their families that they have to quit school and work to support a male relative’s education. “That’s why we see such a great graduation rate [among girls sponsored by EGRC] – the girls from the villages see this is their only way out.”
Sebastien Carrier is program director at Shanghai-based education charity Stepping Stones. His research into rural communities in Guizhou found that the low quality of schools adds to lower expectations for girls.
“If a child shows really exceptional ability – boy or girl – families will invest money into their education,” he says. “But for most, going to often-terrible schools in rural China, girls are not encouraged to go even through middle school.”
The government has been investing heavily in rural education, putting more than 6 billion yuan ($870 million) since 2010 toward improving rural schools, which includes providing them with multimedia facilities and new books. NGOs such as Stepping Stones also send volunteers to remote schools to teach and share their experiences, which can prove crucial for students.
But even if rural girls secure the funds, it’s still a hard road to university. Many face discrimination both in the form of China’s regional quota policy, which allows universities to limit how many students from rural provinces they accept (proposals to reform these rules have met fierce opposition from urban parents) and in terms of a gender bias.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the competitive level for girls from poorer rural areas is 50 times higher than those from urban areas,” says Ye Liu, lecturer in International Development at King’s College, London. “Women from rural communities at top universities have had to work harder than anyone else to get there.”
And if they do manage to get in, they often face discrimination from their classmates.
“These girls are from the poorest parts of China, and suddenly they end up in the big city,” says EGRC’s Tien. “They don’t even know how to cross the street, use a toilet, use a computer. And the girl next to them in the classroom could well be the daughter of a millionaire. How do we prevent these girls losing their confidence?”
In answer to that question, EGRC has built a support network of older students and alumni. One of its success stories is Daisy Gong, 28, who is from a poor family near Lanzhou, northern China. A career working with luxury brand Bulgari has taken her to work in Doha, an opportunity that would have been impossible without her education. She has now returned to Gansu to work with EGRC as a full-time program manager.
And part of her job is to remember what it felt like when going to university seemed like pure fantasy. “The children in these villages don’t know about the outside world – they don’t think there is anything beyond the mountains,” says Gong. “So when we go to the villages, we tell them that they could one day be the big boss, could study abroad, could run a business.”