More Rights at a Cost
Pan Jingling journeyed half the width of China to reach this sanctuary. The 25-year-old peasant woman feels lucky the place exists at all. The New Sun Marriage Shelter, a self-funded safe house for battered women in central Wuhan province, is the only haven of its kind in China. Pan had never heard of the New Sun home until she saw a recent story in a Chinese women's magazine. She says she ran away from her husband, a hard-drinking bicycle-cart driver, because he kept beating her for criticizing the family's meager finances. Now she shares a spartan dormitory room with nine other women who have similar stories of abuse. To pay her way she works in a cornstarch factory run by the shelter. And life is good. "I felt as if I was locked up, so distant and alone," she says. "Now I feel free."
They face some formidable obstacles. Some 60 percent of China's unemployed are women, and their numbers are growing fast. Even college-educated women can't find jobs. And the ideal of universal education is evaporating. Today as many as 70 percent of China's 140 million illiterates are female, and peasant parents often refuse to send their daughters to school. "There is this feudal attitude that 'girls are going to get married and won't be part of the family anyway, so why waste the money?' " says Feng Cui, an official for the Women's Federation. Last year the group provided funding to help 600,000 primary-school dropouts resume their education.
Divorce rates are soaring. Chen Yiyun runs Beijing's first marital-counseling service, where desperate women seek sympathy and help for their broken marriages. She says unfaithful husbands are her clients' No. 1 complaint. Married men don't risk much social stigma for taking lovers. Chen says many Chinese, male and female, are eager to imitate everything about Western society--including the stereotyped notion of pervasive casual sex. "In the pursuit of freedom and profit, people think you shouldn't do anything for too long," says Chen. "Advertising encourages you to change everything--including love and marriage."
Women's frustration cuts through all levels of society. In a tiny office down a twisting alley in Beijing, a group of activists is operating the country's first telephone hot line especially for women. The callers' complaints are much like those of Western women--even the aching emptiness of life at the top. For businessmen, one of the proudest status symbols is a nonworking wife. The hot line recently got a call from one of those wives, a trained physician whose husband forbids her to work. "He won't let me go out," the wife said. "I'm ready to kill myself. I feel like a high-class prisoner."
In one way or another almost every caller has an intolerable sense of being trapped. The phone rings and Chen Xinxin, a sociologist who works as one of the hot line's counselors, answers. The caller's husband has been seeing a lover for the last seven years, and the caller has just found out. More than 60 percent of the hot line's calls involve cheating husbands. "Sexually, we're no good together anymore," the caller complains. "It's gotten more and more distant. He says to me, 'When I'm with you I'm just thinking of her'." Chen speaks up. "Have you considered the idea of getting a boyfriend?" she asks. The caller replies: "I never thought of that." Chen advises the caller to give the marriage one last chance. Dress up a little, try to recapture the husband's sexual desire. And if that doesn't work, dump him. "Why do you need a husband like that?" Chen demands. "Someone who won't talk to you and who's not interested in you sexually? You have to rely on yourself."
That's the activists' biggest challenge: persuading women to stand up for themselves. Liu, the Beijing social worker, helped establish a Women's Health Network in China in 1993. The aim, she says, is to provide women with the medical and legal information they need to take charge of their own lives. This month she is publishing a Chinese translation of "Our Bodies, Ourselves," the American feminist handbook of the 1970s. "We need to teach women that they have a choice," says Liu. "That they should respect their bodies." In China, for example, many doctors routinely prescribe hysterectomies for mothers suffering from uterine cysts--a needlessly drastic treatment by Western medical standards. So far Liu has helped two women persuade their doctors to remove the lumps but save the uterus. Activists like Liu must often take their victories one at a time.
That beats winning no victories at all. Zhang Xianfen, the New Sun shelter's founder, says the place was inspired by her own experience as an abused wife. "I do whatever I can to help these women learn self-reliance," she says. "In China it is very difficult for a woman to stand on her own two feet." Not long ago a woman in Shanghai tried to set up the country's second domestic-violence shelter. The government shut it down, explaining cryptically that the problem was the center's "unclear status." China's activists have grown used to surmounting such troubles. A big-character slogan is splashed across a wall at the New Sun shelter: we cannot be fate's prisoners! The thought has given strength to young Pan Jingling. Millions of other Chinese women have barely begun to hear it.
Chop by Chinatown Art Gallery
© 1998 by Newsweek, Inc.