Women's rights in China: Carma Hinton interviewed

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What do you see as some positive aspects of the old system in China? Strong family ties and loyalties are a positive element if not carried to extremes. A respect for the old -- when the old don't wield absolute power over the young -- should be preserved and continued in the new context, with a more democratic structure of the family.

When I say strong family ties, I don't mean the traditional aspects of the family that tie women down. But with women having equal rights, the loyalty and mutual support that are part of the old system are valuable.

How are recent economic changes affecting women?

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I do not believe that economic development automatically brings advancement for women, but poverty certainly does not provide any basis for advancement. In the very poor communities the new economic policy, by bringing improvement in income, provides a possibility for [women's] issues to be addressed.

But in certain communities that prospered [under collectivization], working outside the home did give women more of a sense of themselves as separate beings from the male head of the household and more of a sense of alliance with other women.

When the new policies bring about a dismantling of this kind of collective, and women become just a part of the household, that diminishes their role and their equality. I feel this is not good for women.

Have you been aware of instances of female infanticide where a family who is only allowed one or two children has a girl and wants to try again for a boy?

The only cases I know about are those I read in the Chinese press or learn about through hearsay. It was more frequent when people were more in poverty. It happens in places where the one-child-family ruling has been strictly enforced.

In Long Bow people are allowed two children. If they're both girls, the woman is not sterilized and can try for a boy another time if the policy in the future permits.

The only cure for female infanticide, seeing that China needs a strict population policy, is a concerted effort to raise women's position and reform the tradition where women must always marry into a man's family.

How do you feel healthy social change can best be brought about?

I would like to see more of an effort on the part of the Chinese goverment, women's organizations, and people in education to address the issue of women's position in society. They are putting much more effort into pushing birth control and not enough education and effort into generally raising the position of women and promoting more equality. I'm not sure [the problem is] resistance; generally it's a lack of awareness and a lack of concern.

What are examples of progress women have made?

There are a few women in positions of power, and gradually there are younger women who grow up under quite a different social environment from their mothers and grandmothers. They are growing up to be stronger, more assertive human beings, and more aware of their rights and their potential.

Can the Chinese media advance women's rights?

Many stories in the Chinese press report tragedies such as young women having to run away from their homes because of their parents' trying to pressure them into an alliance that the parents favor. These are not isolated cases. Often these young women don't know where to go. Some of them don't even know their rights.

There is an effort through women's organizations to teach women about their rights, giving them advice as to where to go to seek legal help and other forms of support to fight these traditional forces. There has been a certain degree of success in this direction .

Is there new legislation in support of women's rights?

There are changes in the laws, but [it is also necessary to] enforce laws that are in existence. There are laws banning arranged marriages and banning parents from interfering in their children's marriages. However, in the countryside this needs a lot of enforcement.

There is a general inadequacy in enforcing the law, which they're trying to correct. They're trying to set up a better system of lawyers and courts. In the past there was rule by personality. Whoever is in power has the say. The lack of enforcement of women's rights should be seen in this larger context.

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