Holding Up More Than Half the Sky: Women in Rural China

An article by guest writer Theresa Carino. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the post.

In recent months, UN agencies and governments, including that of China, have been promoting the Sustainable Development Goals that will eliminate extreme poverty in this world in 2030. Very understandably, there is much skepticism that such an ambitious goal will be realized since poverty has been with us since time immemorial. But recent World Bank statistics attest to the fact that global poverty has indeed been reduced. In China, those living on less than 1.25 USD per day per capita fell from 53% of its population to 8%, between 1981 and 2001. It was a formidable achievement and there is no doubt so much of this could not have been achieved without the participation and contributions of women.

In my work with Amity, I have seen how women in different parts of China, especially in rural areas, have played crucial roles in bringing about change, transforming themselves in the process.

Bearers of hope and renewal: Xi Yang Hong troupe

In 2008, when the earthquake struck Woyun Village in Mianzhu County, the epicenter, many of the residents were out in the fields and they watched, stunned, as their homes turned to rubble in a matter of seconds. Many were shocked and paralyzed by the ordeal. Close to 90% of homes were destroyed and only two out of 9 water towers remained standing. Fortunately, the damage to life was minimal and many of their livestock survived.
News about the devastation and terrible loss of life in the rest of Mianzhu reached them and the women began to think of how they could help. The Xi Yang Hong Culture Troupe consisting of middle-aged and younger women decided they could help bring cheer to fellow victims and gamely performed in other parts of Mianzhu within a week of the tragedy.

Xi Yang Hong Troupe practicing in reconstructed Woyun village in 2013

Xi Yang Hong Troupe practicing in reconstructed Woyun village in 2013

They played a tremendous role in raising morale in their own and surrounding villages. Despite living in tents, villagers celebrated the mid-Autumn Festival in Woyun and the Spring Festival 2009. With the help of Amity staff, a program of fun and celebration was developed with the full participation of village residents. It was therapeutic for the community, bringing hope in the midst of loss and grief, and building bonds of friendship and solidarity that would see them through times of anxiety and uncertainty.

Spring festival in Woyun village after the quake

Spring festival in Woyun village after the quake

Builders of homes

When I visited the reconstructed village 6 years later, in 2014, I was amazed at the transformation. It had been voted the most beautiful village in Mianzhu County and the Xi Yang Hong Troupe had expanded its membership to include women from surrounding villages. I learnt that the women had also been the builders of homes in Woyun. They had played an active and leading role in rebuilding the community. Amity had insisted that women would constitute half of the 32-member Woyun Reconstruction Committee from the outset. They represented 16 sub-villages and had taken part in building (as in carrying bricks and sand) and construction monitoring (as in strictly following plans and draughts) to ensure homes would be quake-proof (to 8.0 on the Richter scale). I was told by a civil engineer from Hong Kong, who had volunteered time and expertise in training the home builders (both men and women) that the women were much more diligent, earnest and meticulous in learning the basics about construction and in monitoring the building process. Many women physically engaged in-house construction.

Men and women carrying bricks, building homes in Woyun

Men and women carrying bricks, building homes in Woyun

Managers of scarce resources

In rural areas, women tend to be physically and psychologically resilient. Especially in poverty stricken areas, women have to manage scarce resources. They fetch water for the family walking several kilometers a day to perform the back-breaking task. They have to gather wood in order to cook for their families, another time-consuming and heavy task that has devastating consequences for forests.

For many farmers in remote areas, the water crisis is real and existential. There are villages that have lost their water sources to pollution or competition from mining companies or to climate change. Some villagers have to walk several kilometers for water that may not even be safe. In downstream areas, farmers have had to suffer gastroenteritis and related health risks from drinking polluted water. The government has intensified its efforts to address the water needs of communities but in smaller villages located in areas where water sources are heavily polluted or drying up, the wait has been very long.

Polluted pond in a village in Guangxi

Polluted pond in a village in Guangxi

In most cities, we take the availability of safe, potable water for granted. In poverty stricken villages in remote parts of China, water projects have helped to remove stigma, significantly improved health conditions, saved time for more economic and cultural activities, brought higher levels of income, created more cohesion among villagers and raised levels of management capacity.

Besides supporting water projects that ensure piped water to households, Amity has been promoting the use of biogas in regions (such as Hunan) where pig breeding is common. Through this form of renewable, green energy promoted by Amity, experts estimate that the reduction in environmental costs is considerable. The biogas projects also release women from collecting wood and saving time for other activities such as income generating enterprises.

Today, as rural men enter cities seeking more income from construction and other manual work, the women have to work in the fields and fetch water and firewood, besides caring for their children and parents. They carry a heavy burden. Increasingly, both men and women have left villages in search of more income leaving the children and the elderly behind. The increasing number of suicides involving children and the elderly in rural areas has become a serious social problem. Measures to address these issues have been wanting and slow in being implemented.

Culture preservers and entrepreneurs

Water and biogas projects by Amity have helped villagers, especially women, to be released from daily chores of fetching water and gathering firewood. With the “saved time”, women earn extra incomes by raising more pigs, or produce embroidery and other cultural products that can be sold in towns or other villages. In some areas, training is organized so that women can re-learn weaving and embroidery techniques that are constantly in danger of being lost as “development” reaches more remote areas.

Women busy at sewing, Yunnan Province, 2013

Women busy at sewing, Yunnan Province, 2013

Woman selling tofu for extra income

Woman selling tofu for extra income

Yao minority Women in Guangxi speak about the water project, 2011

Yao minority Women in Guangxi speak about the water project, 2011

Freed from fetching water and firewood, women have become entrepreneurs. In Amity’s earlier projects (in the 90’s) directed at women, local villages were encouraged to form women’s groups that engaged in micro-finance. Women members were given very basic training in financial planning and management. In some areas, project staff had to start with literacy classes. Many women had very little experience in handling cash and had never seen a 100 yuan note before as village-level transactions were based on bartering. But close to 90% of the participants were able to succeed in their income-generating projects and return the money they borrowed. Very often, they bred and sold pigs, goats, rabbits and chickens. Some grew cash crops while others set up mini-stores that served local needs. Obviously, given some education and opportunities, women, even in the most remote areas, can improve their lives and that of their families.

I have seen women become transformed from being silent, shy and dependent to becoming assertive and outspoken through their involvement in village-based projects. In areas where village committees were dominated by elderly men, I have seen younger women having a say in village meetings because they have gained respect for their success in village enterprises.

Women speak up in meeting

Women speak up in meeting

Women are being heard and it is no longer strange or unusual to find village heads who are women. Nevertheless, not all female village leaders receive the support they need. Quite often, they assume leadership when their spouses leave the village to work in cities. Leadership lays a heavier burden on women’s shoulders and they often are not able to sustain this role without support from their spouses or other women.

The increasing migration of male farmers to urban and eastern coastal areas has led to what experts call the “feminization of rural labor and agriculture”. Today, the most vulnerable groups in rural parts of China are women, children and the elderly, as well as ethnic minorities who live in remote mountainous areas. After 30 years as an NGO, the Amity Foundation finds it essential to continue working with these vulnerable groups and finding ways to empower them.

About the writer

Theresa Chong Carino, a Singaporean, has worked with the Amity Foundation, a Chinese Christian-initiated NGO based in Nanjing for the last 20 years as director of its Hong Kong Office and more recently as consultant for research and development at Amity’s headquarters. Amity has development projects in almost every province in China. It is involved in humanitarian response to disasters, education and health projects (including HIV-AIDS) in remote areas, international exchange, and providing services for mentally and physically challenged children and seniors in urban communities.

Theresa has taught Political Science at De La Salle University in the Philippines, started its China Studies Program and established an NGO that initiated south-south exchanges with NGOs in China. She also helped found the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies. She now spends half her time in China and the other half in the Philippines.

5 thoughts on “Holding Up More Than Half the Sky: Women in Rural China

  1. Posting remarks emailed to me by Chew-kong Yeong Choy
    Toke Feng

    Thank you, Toke Feng, for sending me Theresa’s article. It is truly inspiring.
    Lam Pin Foo’s blog has so many interesting articles. I’m so glad I can read them now.

    chew- kongyeongchoy

  2. Posting remarks emailed to me by Veronica Tham Poh Mui
    Toke Feng

    Thanks Toke Feng. In my Church there are a number like her, dedicating their lives for the betterment of others in rural oversea villages.
    I really admire Theresa & other women’s work among the under-privileged.
    Veronica Tham Poh Mui

  3. You do have sharp eyes! All the photos were taken by me during my trips to the rural areas except when I was having a discussion with the women. All of them were so interested in telling their own stories and how their lives improved now that they have running water. They also were keen to express new ideas for improvements in the water system and even pointed out the need for a waste water cum sewage system in the village! Thanks, Toke Feng, for your support. Theresa

  4. Many thanks, Theresa for a very well-written, interesting, and inspiring article. I believe it will create more awareness of the rewarding work you do and your dedication on behalf of Amity Foundation. The pictures spoke volumes on the sterling qualities of Chinese rural women. Btw, I spotted the back of your head in the pic of your meeting with them. 😉

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