Women in Politics – not quite half of the sky

This morning, I was invited by the US embassy to take part in a roundtable discussion with Melanne Verveer, the ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. Upon the invitation of All-China Women’s Federation, Ambassador Verveer is leading a delegation of prominent American women to take part in the International Forum on Women and Sustainable Development. My fellow participants – there were about ten of them – were all women journalists, working for various media in China. The discussion was moderated by American ambassador’s wife Ms Mona Lee Locke, a former successful TV journalist herself.

I talked women in politics, something very much interests me.

Chairman Mao famously said that “Women can hold up half of the sky”. That statement may be as illusive as the sky itself but the Chinese Communists have indeed done a great deal for Chinese women, granting them with the equal rights, equal pay and so on. The women in the workforce rose from 7% in 1949 to today’s 70%. One area China hasn’t fared so well is in the participation of women in politics.

Women only account for 21.4% of deputies in National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, falling short of 30%, a target set by the UN’s Forth Conference on Women held in Beijing back in 1995. The percentage of female representation rose steadily in the early years of PRC. In recent years, the figure has gone down slightly.

It seems the higher the political ladder, the fewer the percentage of female presence. There are only 15% women in the standing committee of NPC, and there are only one woman (Wu Yi) in the 25-seat politburo and no women at all in the more powerful politburo’s standing committee. A decree introduced in 2007 to guarantee a minimal 22% of female representatives has not made any impact, it seems.

The traditional culture of male dominance is still deeply rooted. There are plenty of old sayings, like ‘long hair, short wisdom’, which suggest that women are bad decision makers.

In the grass root level, women are also a rare sight. Only 3% of women have the honour to be elected as the head of the villages across the rural China where the conservative force is stronger than in the city.

A few years ago, I witnessed a village election in the village by the Ming Tombs just outside Beijing, where I have a little cottage. One of my neighbhours Bai Dama, a robust woman in her 50’s, ran for the village head’s position. In the two-horse race, Bai, who had been in charge of the family planning and women’s issues for many years, narrowly lost to a middle-aged man, the son of the last village head. Though some fellow villagers, women included, were impressed by Bai’s ability, they felt a good woman ought not be interested in things like election and running the village – a good woman should put her family first.

What’s the solution? Changing people’s mind set. It’ll be a long and slow process.

Chinese women have done extremely well in many fields, look, half of the top ten self-made business women in China are from main-land China. If given the chance, I have no doubt that strong-willed Chinese women can run the government just as effectively if not better.

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