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Date: Wed, 2 Sep 98 23:14:15 CDT
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: CHINA: Speaking Up for Invisible Rural Women
Article: 42471
To: undisclosed-recipients:;;@chumbly.math.missouri.edu
Message-ID: <bulk.13125.19980903181657@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 495.0 **/
** Topic: DEVELOPMENT-CHINA: Speaking Up for Invisible Rural Women **
** Written 3:37 PM Sep 2, 1998 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **

Speaking Up for Invisible Rural Women

By Antoaneta Bezlova, IPS, 30 August 1998

BEIJING, Aug 30 (IPS) - Few bother to write about the drudgery of life for rural women in China's remote and poor corners, but Xie Lihua pursues this cause with unrivaled missionary fervour.

Xie put up the only publication in China solely devoted to the problems of peasant women, a popular magazine called 'Rural Women Knowing All', when the lives of millions of rural women had long been evicted from the pages of the mainland press.

I think journalists who can only write, no matter how talented they are, are not enough for China, she says in an interview. China needs people who dare to act.

Act she did, in a country where there are few genuine social organisations outside of the government-sanctioned bodies.

Xie is doing a study on why China's countryside women kill themselves in alarming numbers which surpass suicide rates everywhere in the world, quite a sensitive subject here.

She also organises several literacy classes for rural women and runs seven microcredit programmes for them in different provinces.

Most of the time, she tries to combine her journalistic work with a string of activities involving women, including running a women's hotline and organising events for the 'singles' club.

She remembers an interview she did in the early 1990s in a village of Hebei province, which made her realise she needed to do something more than just write about least discussed and officially neglected women's issues in China.

I was sent by 'China Women's News' to write a profile of a woman held as a model because she was taking care of her crippled husband for many years and was unconditionally faithful to him, she recalled.

But her interview revealed a reality that was quite different from what was expected.

The subject of her interview, Li Lihua, was by no means the submissive wife-model. She was truly miserable, sharing her life with a man paralysed from the waist down. He treated her as a slave, but she believed it was her destiny to serve and follow him because she had been taught so.

I couldn't call them a model family, recounts Xie. I couldn't lie and say she wasn't longing for children, for a husband.

Instead, the story reminded her of the virtuous and genial wife taken from the country annals in ancient China. Many of these 'good wives' in the past had to follow their husbands in death or keep chastity as widows for the rest of their lives, she continued.

So, Xie wrote an article which instead of eulogising the model wife, attacked the archaic values held in esteem for women in China today. Is that a spiritual civilisation or feudal ignorance? she asked.

Xie's article triggered a storm of mail and provoked a debate that went on for eight months. She received many letters from people who condemned her for shattering existing myths. They thought I distorted the reality and all these were wonderful examples of women's virtue, she recalls.

But Xie also received letters from peasant women who were moved by the story and felt they had also something to share. The idea of a peasant women's magazine was born and in 1993, Xie became the founder and editor of 'Rural Women Knowing All'.

Back then, the idea seemed pretty radical even to her colleagues who always knew Xie as a woman of initiative and firm will. So little support was there for such a publication that I had to write the first two issues all by myself, Xie recalls.

But 'Rural Women Knowing All' soon broke new ground, bringing a host of topics like sex, love and marriage to a readership that had never been educated on the importance of talking about them.

When 'Rural Women' debuted, there were 44 women-related publications nationwide, Xie says, but none of them addressed to the rural women which make up 70 percent of China's women population.

This statistic reflects a bitter truth in China: the life and death of peasant women in the world's most populous country remains one of the most neglected matters by the government and media.

Urban women and rural women in China are like two different worlds, says Xie. Women in cities enjoy the privilege of education, health care and thriving economy. Women in villages are forgotten by everyone.

The most alarming sign of this gulf is how rural women seem to have accepted the insignificance of their lives, and are killing themselves in disturbingly large numbers.

China is the only country in the world where the number of female suicides surpass male suicides, and suicide rates in the countryside are about three times as high as in the cities.

From their birth these women are being regarded as less important family members than their brothers, observes Xie. But how can they choose the death as a way of escape from the difficult reality of rural existence? It means they don't understand the value of their lives.

Xie Lihua has taken on the weighty task of teaching rural women how to cherish their own lives -- by creating a world for them.

So far 'Rural Women' has ventured into some of the most curious topics for young Chinese women. These include how to have safe and fulfilling sex, how to prosper and look for a job in the cities -- and how to avoid having unwanted babies.

It is an uneasy mission in China, says a friend of Xie's. The government doesn't like people who bring into the limelight controversial issues and she is seen by many as a troublemaker.