At the invitation of the United Nations agency, UNIFEM, I travelled to Beijing at the end of November 2002 to give a series of talks and discuss the development of a campaign in China to end violence against women.
No large-scale surveys exist of the extent of violence against women in China. Small studies and anecdotal evidence certainly points to significant levels but, as is still the case in many countries, it is largely shrouded in silence. There are also specific issues, such as selected abortion of girls, that have propelled the birth ratio of boys to girls to an unnaturally high level. (In 1990 the ratio was already 111:100; in 2000 it was 120:100.)
On the brighter side, the new marriage law prohibits domestic violence (even if it doesn’t specify exactly what is covered under that rubric); several provinces have passed specific laws on domestic violence; there are a number of organizations and government bodies starting to work on this issue (see some details below); some research is beginning; and a hit TV show this past year, the 20-part drama, “Don’t Talk To Strangers” focussed on a case of an abused woman and has been rebroadcast numerous times.
There were a number of highlights to my visit.
The white ribbon symbol in China: It’s inspiring to see the white ribbon being adopted in the most populous country in the world. For example, they have a poster campaign that shows two TV stars wearing white ribbons with a hand outstretched in a stop signal and a message about domestic violence. (The man is the star from “Don’t Talk to Strangers.”) At the end is a photo taken at a bus shelter a block from Tiananmen Square.
UNIFEM launched a white ribbon campaign here two years ago and the symbol is starting to get known. Many Chinese are hesitant to wear a white ribbon; it’s the color for funerals and mourning and, hence, bad luck to wear. But in my talks I stressed that was precisely one of the two reasons why we chose the color: one being the western symbol of peace; the other as the Asian symbol of mourning, in this case for the thousands of women who die each year at the hands of a man. As well, by a nice coincidence, the shape of our ribbon is the same as the Chinese character for human being.
A men’s group: China’s first men’s group dedicated to ending VAW has established itself, apparently encouraged by UNIFEM and prompted by this visit. The “Group of Male Volunteers for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Promotion of Gender Equality” hopes to develop public awareness initiatives (such as the white ribbon campaign) including in schools. It was exciting to meet with these men, especially in a country with a strong patriarchal history (symbolized, perhaps, in the teachings of Confucius.)
Range of audiences: The other highlight was speaking to a number of different audiences. There was a talk sponsored by the “Project on Policy Research and Intervention for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.” This effort of the China Law Society is proposing legal changes on violence against women, establishing a network and website (www.stopdv.org.cn), carrying out research, enhancing public awareness, and engaging in theoretical exploration of the issue. It was this group that produced the posters mentioned above.
I spoke to students at Tsinghua University, the university that has trained most of the country’s leaders. I spoke to a network called “Gender and Development” that includes individuals in the media, academics, and development workers. And there was a large public meeting with welcoming statements by various dignitaries, and then speeches by a colleague at UNIFEM and myself and a reading of the founding statement of the men’s group.
The visit should reach more than the immediate audience as there was a fair bit of media coverage, both by the local media and some of the international media in Beijing. My favourite, though, was spending quite a bit of time with a crew from a weekly TV show call “Half the Sky” which deals with women’s and gender issues. They were producing a half-hour documentary on my visit and the White Ribbon Campaign. They shrugged that their audience isn’t that large; only 50 million people.
I shrugged back and said that was almost twice the population of Canada.