The Changing Roles of Women in Asia -- From Bedroom to Boardroom
Finally women were being recognized for their contributions both to the communist victory and to society in general. They were now supposedly free from many outdated traditions and laws.
But Chairman Mao forgot to mention that women, besides holding up their half of the sky also had to juggle education, marriage, absent husbands, child and parental care, work, political meetings and other duties. So even then, freedom for women came at a price.
The situation remains difficult for women. China is the only country in the world where more women commit suicide than men. Every year, 1.5 million women attempt to take their own lives and 150,000 (one woman every four minutes) actually succeed. Many seem to feel that there is no way out of an abusive marriage and often no one to turn to, no money and not enough education to find a job in order to be self-sufficient.
But ask many Chinese women who are now in their 20s and 30s how their lives compare with that of their mothers, and they would likely tell you that they are much better off. The lucky ones work in air-conditioned offices or factories, even if in mostly secretarial, clerical and assembling positions, have more spending power, the ability to travel and run their own businesses without having to toil long hours in the fields as their mothers and grandmothers once did.
Some savvy city women now even sign prenuptial agreements and are permitted by law to sue their husbands for divorce, although getting a divorce is still difficult because most judges are men and they often side with the husband, who is allowed by law to keep the family home after a divorce.
According to the Chinese government’s 2000 census, people with university educations rose from 1.42 percent in 1990 to 3.61 percent. But there is no official figure on how many of these are females and what subjects they are studying. By contrast, in Hong Kong, more than 70 percent of college students are women.
China also has another problem a shortage of women. The “one-child” policy that came into force in 1975 and China’s traditional preference for male children over females means men between the ages of 21 and 36 are finding it difficult to get married. The government census of 2000 showed that the country has 20 percent more boys than girls, aged 0 to 4 years. That is, four boys will be competing for the hand of one girl in the future. Some men might not be able to find a bride at all.
Since China opened its market to outside investment, thousands of village girls have moved to coastal towns to work in factories. Even though their wages are meager and living condition harsh they have become their family’s sole breadwinners. The girls go home sporadically, perhaps once a year, before the start of the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year.
So what is the roadmap for Chinese women? More social, political and economic changes are needed -- promoted and instigated by women. But real power still lies in the hands of men. China’s ruling Politburo consists only of men. Women hold political jobs in the third and fourth tiers, but these are not decision-making positions. Unfortunately, this trend is still true in most Asian countries.
In Thailand, only 1 percent of women is in politics or holds a government post. In the entire world, only 3 percent of women are in public office. The same is largely true in Cambodia, China, Laos, South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam.
Even in a developed country such as Japan, women are not keen to become entrepreneurs, let alone government servants or politicians. They do, however, control the family’s finances and husbands are given a weekly allowance.
This is because, according to Asian tradition, women who step out of the box are often viewed as scandalous, immoral, outrageous and often evil. A chaste woman does not flaunt herself in public, be controversial or have different views than those of her husband. Also, women do not tend to view active participation in politics as a means to better their lives.
Another example of women’s reluctance to be in the public eye is the otherwise modern island republic of Singapore, where very few are women represented in government. Ho Ching, executive director of Temasek, the powerful investment arm of the Singapore government, is one of the few exceptions. Forbes magazine in 2005 named her as “the second most influential woman in the world outside the United States”. But then, she is married to this island state’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong.
For years, the number of internationally known women in China was very few –Soong Ching Ling, the wife of Sun Yat Sen and her sister Madame Chiang Kai-shek Soong Mei Ling head ed a short list that also included the infamous Madame Mao, the gang of four leader Jian Qing. However, just this month the paper-recycling tycoon Zhang Yin was named as China’s richest person – not woman – with a fortune estimated at US$3.37 billion. Ms. Zhang, 49, went from 36th to first by buying scrap paper in the United States and recycling it for use in China.
In Malaysia, only a handful of women have played political roles. One woman who has is Dr. Wan Azizah Ismail –who spoke out and campaigned against the politically inspired 1999 imprisonment of her husband, Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Another is Puan Rafidah Aziz, who has been in the Malaysian cabinet for decades and is now Minister of Trade and Industry.
The United Nations International Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) noted in the year 2000 that women accounted for more than half of the work force in Asia, but their careers remain concentrated in social areas (14 percent), legal (9 percent), economics (4.1 percent), political affairs (3.4 percent) and executive (3.9 percent). Only 13 percent of women are in managerial and administrative posts, although experts recognize this as a significant increase in the past 20 years.
No statistics exist on how many Asian women are entrepreneurs and or run their own businesses. No statistics exist either on how many women from Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal are migrant domestic workers around the world, although collectively they remit billions of dollars a year to their families and their countries.
In Hong Kong, it is the women of the “baby-boomer” years whom I believe have benefited the most from education, employment opportunities and healthcare. Women in here have made massive strides. In 2002, women comprised slightly more than half the Hong Kong population. More than half of university graduates are women. Women make up 43 percent of the labor force.
There are many reasons why so many Hong Kong women have achieved “boardroom success.” For example, it could be because with the right education and or the right family connections many found better jobs, equal pay and financial independence. Many working mothers are able to employ full-time live-in maids to look after their children and help run their households Grandparents often play an active role in looking after or keeping an eye on the grandchildren. Also, many women have credited their spouses for being supportive, allowing them the opportunity to go out to work and to compete.
In spite of strong traditional views still held by many Asian societies, the advancement of women continues but these women are multi-tasking often logging very long working hours, bringing work home and even working on weekends and public holidays. After all, it is still a man’s world with many men desperately holding onto traditional views of what a woman’s role in society and the home should be. Also, many women continue to rank themselves third in importance, behind the husband and children. Women in Hong Kong still put in 63.3 hours a week of office work, (men 66.1 hrs), not including looking after the children, relatives and housework.
But success often comes at a price – young, educated Asian women are now finding it more difficult to get married or are marrying later and having fewer children. With better education come higher aspirations and many successful women refuse to marry down. Men, on the other hand, often are afraid of marrying a woman who is smarter, better educated, has more earning power, who talks back and most important of all, is not keen on motherhood.
As a result, many educated women opt out of the marriage game, to stay single and live either with their parents or in their own apartment. An example is Singapore. With a falling birthrate, the government has for years arranged “Love Boat” cruises for single, well-educated professional men and women to find love and marriage and produce more babies.
But with all the freedom and choice – marriage to a person of their choice, able to go to college and find high paying jobs – come new worries -- health, life after retirement and how to continue to play an active role in society.
In Asian countries where there is still one-party rule or where conflict and civil unrest is rife, the lives of many women and children continue to be at risk. They lack shelter, food, proper health care and education.
And finally, Asia’s most famous political prisoner is a woman --Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s pro-democracy leader. This Nobel Peace Prize winner (1999) has been living under house arrest off and on for more than 16 years.
So, clearly, it is safe to say that the majority of women in Asia still have a long way to go.
Nancy C. Anderson is an author and publisher, and has run her own business for more than 20 years. She has written two English-language books: "Flight of the Innocent - Vietnamese Refugee Children" and "Eternal China - Visions of Village Life".