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A voice for rural women of China

A fervent activist aims to convince maltreated wives and daughters that they are men's equals.

January 02, 2008|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Xie Lihua's parents wanted a boy. But on the day Xie was born in a poor village in rural Shandong province, her mother learned she had given birth to a second daughter.

She wept in anger. And she slapped her new baby.

"Another girl!" she cried.

The year was 1951. Girls were considered a worthless commodity in an agrarian society that relied upon the strength of young men to flourish. Xie grew up knowing her place -- as a handmaiden to her younger brother.

"My sister and I knew that all the good food went to him -- when he was done, then we could eat," she recalled.

Decades later, the plight of women in rural China is in many ways even worse. The world's most-populous nation enforces a strict one-child policy to control its population growth. With more limited opportunities to have children, boys are more idolized than ever.

But the little girl once groomed as a second-class citizen is tired of such insults.

Today, Xie is a fierce activist for women's rights, working to inspire a quiet revolution. She wants to show a dominant male culture that the nation's women deserve respect, and are equals.

As important, she is trying to convince the women themselves.

Xie is the founder of the groundbreaking Rural Women magazine, a crucial emotional outlet for generations of peasant women. Each issue includes a lengthy series of readers' letters, a sort of chat room for far-flung villagers too poor to own computers.

Although urban women have made strides toward equality, thanks to better education and opportunities within a growing white-collar workforce, rural women are often stuck in a harsh lifestyle unchanged from an earlier era.

"I tell them their life is the equal of any man. They were not born unequal -- society made them this way," Xie said. "They just need opportunities to obtain their rights."

Three of four Chinese women -- more than 450 million -- still live in the countryside, where rigid social customs breed loneliness and abuse.

Domestic violence rates are high. Each year 150,000 women commit suicide in rural China -- the only place on Earth where more women kill themselves than men, according to the World Health Organization.

Xie's readers are country women taught to refer to male spouses not as husbands but masters. They inhabit a world where the emphasis on bearing sons is so strong that women bear names such as Zhaodi ("looking for a little brother") and Aidi ("loving a little brother").

Along with her 14-year-old magazine, Xie founded the Cultural Development Center for Rural Women, China's first nongovernmental organization focused on women living outside the city.

She has sponsored programs in literacy training and suicide prevention, as well as some aimed at increasing women's political participation. She dispenses micro-loans for enterprising rural women.

These days, she focuses on the plight of China's largest underclass -- the millions of women who leave the countryside as migrant workers -- and especially on abduction and trafficking schemes that enslave women as prostitutes.

She runs a hotline for battered spouses and women unfairly laid off from jobs and has pressured the government to devise more specific legal protections from sexual harassment. She seeks a minimum salary and basic insurance for domestic workers who are not covered under the nation's labor laws.

Her efforts have empowered multitudes, including rural women who have sought their fortunes in the city, such as the factory worker who challenged her company after it stopped paying her, and the physically abused waitress who sued her employer.

"Xie Lihua's magazine was the first that gave rural women any real voice," said Joan Kaufman, a former Ford Foundation program director in China who is now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "She and others helped put the issue of domestic violence out there for people to begin talking about."

Xie's critics say she embarrasses China. Before one international trip, Xie was warned about bad-mouthing her homeland. "There's no minor thing in diplomacy," a party official warned. "You will be responsible for anything you say abroad."

But Xie is unbowed. At 56, she wears traditional Chinese blouses along with Western bluejeans. She continues talking to the Western press and anyone else who will listen. She has risked much with her fight, including the harmony in her own marriage.

"If I am a troublemaker, then so was Deng Xiaoping and his open-door policy," she said. "If there is no change, even though it is painful, then there is no progress."

Xie Lihua first realized that widespread changes were possible in China during the 1960s Cultural Revolution. But she believed the Red Guard armies that beat intellectuals got it all wrong.

As head of her secondary school Red Guard committee, she balked at flogging her teachers in public. By then, she had left her village and moved to Beijing, and she began thinking about how to refocus the misplaced zeal of Mao Tse-tung's new revolution.

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