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Chinese Government Pushes Harmful Gender Roles Onto ‘Leftover’ Women

China’s state-run organization on gender equality is promoting a damaging narrative about women’s subservience in an attempt to fix social issues, Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson writes.

Written by Sophie Richardson Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The All-China Women’s Federation is encouraging women to become dutiful wives instead of advocating for equality.Costfoto/Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

“Before joining the women’s school, I couldn’t imagine that a careless and unreserved northern girl like me could gracefully sit here showing everyone how to make tea.” These are the words of a Chinese college student from the Kunyu Women’s School, a partnership between Industrial and Commercial College at Hebei University and the local branch of the government-controlled All-China Women’s Federation.

Claiming to enhance female students’ “overall quality,” the school offers students courses on “psychology, etiquette, image, art and family,” according to an April article on the local government’s website, qualities you might expect to be on offer at a finishing school, not a state-backed university. But this is just one example of the Chinese government’s harmful and discriminatory efforts to push women into subservient gender roles.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the Chinese Communist Party has asserted that it is deeply committed to gender equality. The All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), along with its local branches, is the party’s primary organization for promoting gender equality. In the past, it has advocated for women’s advancement in the labor force and spoken out against gender discrimination in employment. But in recent years it has also begun to sponsor programs promoting specific, stereotyped gender roles that emphasize women’s subservience.

In April 2017, the Deyang Women’s Federation in Sichuan province promoted a training course in knitting and weaving as a “virtue and wisdom class.” In March 2018, the Zhenjiang Women’s Federation in Jiangsu province established the “New Era Women’s School” where classes on “proper sitting posture for women” are offered. That month the Minqin Women’s Federation hosted a workshop where an expert on “family education” discussed how women should best play the roles of mother, wife and daughter.

A search by Human Rights Watch on the website of the Zhaotong Women’s Federation in Yunnan province showed several articles espousing notions such as “woman was created from the man’s rib,” and “women’s biggest virtue” lies in “what she does for her husband and children.”

The new push is part of the All-China Women’s Federation’s campaign to stigmatize unmarried women. In 2007, the ACWF started to describe unmarried women over the age of 27 as “leftover,” and has since run numerous essays critical of educated women who are single.

Chinese authorities have motives for promoting traditional roles. China faces an unprecedented sex ratio imbalance: there are nearly 34 million more men than women in the country, partially as a result of gender-selective abortion practiced under the country’s famous one-child policy.

Chinese society is also rapidly getting old. Around the middle of this century, one in three Chinese people is forecast to be older than 60. Encouraging women to stay home and care for family appears to be part of the government’s strategy to deal with its aging population.

“While the All-China Women’s Federation promotes subservient roles for women, its own studies have shown that women face pervasive discrimination and even violence.”

While the All-China Women’s Federation promotes subservient roles for women, its own studies have shown that women face pervasive discrimination and even violence. A 2014 ACWF survey showed that 87 percent of female college graduates reported that they had been subjected to one or more forms of gender discrimination while looking for their jobs.

Human Rights Watch’s recent report on gender discrimination in job advertising found that 19 percent of the 2018 national civil service job listings specified a requirement or preference for men and only one specified a preference for women in the list. A 2013 ACWF study shows that a quarter of all women in China have been victims of domestic violence.

Every woman is entitled to live her life as she wishes, be it in a traditional or non-traditional role. But the Chinese government is undermining equality in its own country with its messaging to women. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which China has ratified, requires governments to “take all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customs and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”

“Instead of upholding their international legal obligations, the highest levels of the Chinese government have endorsed a return of women to subservient gender roles.”

Instead of upholding their international legal obligations, the highest levels of the Chinese government have endorsed a return of women to subservient gender roles. In a 2013 meeting with leaders of the ACWF, President Xi Jinping said women should play their “unique role” in “promoting Chinese traditional family values and establish good family ethics,” and “voluntarily shoulder the responsibility of respecting the elderly and caring for the young.”

Telling women to marry, give birth, and stay at home taking care of children and older people may strike some as a solution to the social issues of gender imbalances and care for the elderly. But the All-China Women’s Federation should know that discouraging women from asserting equality in all aspects of their lives fosters discrimination and is harmful to Chinese society – never mind the actual women whom the federation claims to serve.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women’s Advancement Deeply.

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