Chinese women report progress and roadblocks First lady participates in frank discussion with panel of leaders

June 28, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIJING -- Hillary Rodham Clinton met with some of the best and brightest of Beijing's vibrant women's movement yesterday, discussing a wide range of sometimes sensitive issues from domestic violence to unemployment to China's high rates of female suicide.

Clinton mostly listened as the panel of seven Chinese women told of the multitude of problems women in this country still face and of their work to solve them.

Although many of the panelists have been outspoken on women's issues in front of small groups, frank discussion in a public international forum was unusual. And the light atmosphere was in marked contrast to the tension surrounding the International Women's Conference that Clinton attended in Beijing in 1995.

The panelists included Xie Lihua, a journalist who has championed the cause of China's rural women, and Liu Bohong of the official All-China Women's Federation, who displayed the newly published Chinese translation of the American women's medical work, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" (Touchstone, 1996).

At the end, a clearly appreciative Clinton said, "I don't think I've ever been in a more lively, energetic and informed discussion than this one today."

The panelists described the many projects under way to improve the status of women, but their remarks were filled with reminders that deep-rooted cultural discrimination persists, particularly in the countryside.

Xie likes to remind people that if you knock at a door in rural China, women are likely to answer, "Nobody's home," if there are no men inside.

Three years ago, she founded the magazine Rural Women Knowing All to give women in the countryside a voice. At yesterday's forum, she described how the magazine had published self-help articles on reproductive health, set up programs for women who are migrant workers in Beijing and helped organize small loans for women to start cottage industries.

But she and other panelists also described the biases that women's programs must overcome.

Ge Youli of the United Nations Development Program in Beijing told of organizing meetings in the countryside to explain loan programs for women and having only husbands turn up.

"We say, 'Where are your wives?' " Ge said. "They say, 'At home cooking, of course.' " She described how the men are then instructed to play a game of what Americans call "Telephone," where the first person is given a message which is passed down a line of 10. By the end, she said, the message had changed. "That's why your wives should be here," she told them.

But the panelists also told of poor rural women who with the help of such loans had set up prosperous businesses, such as tofu shops and pig farms.

Another panelist, lawyer Chen Mingxia, described work in educating women about their legal rights. Although China has a fairly comprehensive women's rights law on paper, discrimination against women is common in areas such as hiring and housing.

At Beijing's universities, there is a saying to describe the hiring hierarchy on graduation: First men with a Beijing residency permit, then men without a Beijing residency permit, then the women.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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