Press , September 01, 2011
policy a surprising boon for China girls
By ALEXA OLESEN
University freshman Mia Wang has confidence to spare.
her home city of Benxi in China's far northeastern tip is famous
for, she flashes a cool smile and says: "Producing excellence.
Youth League member at one of China's top science universities,
she boasts enviable skills in calligraphy, piano, flute and ping
young women are increasingly common in China's cities and make
up the most educated generation of women in Chinese history. Never
have so many been in college or graduate school, and never has
their ratio to male students been more balanced.
To thank for
this, experts say, is three decades of steady Chinese economic
growth, heavy government spending on education and a third, surprising,
factor: the one-child policy.
In 1978, women
made up only 24.2 percent of the student population at Chinese
colleges and universities. By 2009, nearly half of China's full-time
undergraduates were women and 47 percent of graduate students
were female, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
by comparison, women make up 37.6 percent of those enrolled at
institutes of higher education, according to government statistics.
China's family planning rules have barred nearly all urban families
from having a second child in a bid to stem population growth.
With no male heir competing for resources, parents have spent
more on their daughters' education and well-being, a groundbreaking
shift after centuries of discrimination.
basically gotten everything that used to only go to the boys,"
said Vanessa Fong, a Harvard University professor and expert on
China's family planning policy.
Wang and many
of her female classmates grew up with tutors and allowances, after-school
classes and laptop computers. Though she is just one generation
off the farm, she carries an iPad and a debit card, and shops
for the latest fashions online.
arrive at Tsinghua, where Wang's all-girls dorm used to be jokingly
called a "Panda House," because women were so rarely
seen on campus. They now make up a third of the student body,
up from one-fifth a decade ago.
past, girls were raised to be good wives and mothers," Fong
said. "They were going to marry out anyway, so it wasn't
a big deal if they didn't want to study."
Not so anymore.
Fong says today's urban Chinese parents "perceive their daughters
as the family's sole hope for the future," and try to help
them to outperform their classmates, regardless of gender.
argue that China's fertility rate would have fallen sharply even
without the one-child policy because economic growth tends to
reduce family size. In that scenario, Chinese girls may have gotten
more access to education anyway, though the gains may have been
the one-child policy with improving the lives of women is jarring,
given its history and how it's harmed women in other ways. Facing
pressure to stay under population quotas, overzealous family planning
officials have resorted to forced sterilizations and late-term
abortions, sometimes within weeks of delivery, although such practices
limits are also often criticized for encouraging sex-selective
abortions in a son-favoring society. Chinese traditionally prefer
boys because they carry on the family name and are considered
With the arrival
of sonogram technology in the 1980's, some families no longer
merely hoped for a boy, they were able to engineer a male heir
by terminating pregnancies when the fetus was a girl.
gendercide," said Therese Hesketh, a University College London
professor who has studied China's skewed sex ratio. "I don't
understand why China doesn't just really penalize people who've
had sex-selective abortions and the people who do them. The law
exists but nobody enforces it."
the problem, China allows families in rural areas, where son preference
is strongest, to have a second child if their first is a girl.
The government has also launched education campaigns promoting
girls and gives cash subsidies to rural families with daughters.
million girls have "disappeared" in China due to gender-selective
abortion as well as neglect and inadequate access to health care
and nutrition, the United Nations estimated in a report last year.
Yin Yin Nwe,
UNICEF's representative to China, puts it bluntly: The one-child
policy brings many benefits for girls "but they have to be
in the spring of 1992 triggered a family rift that persists to
this day. She was a disappointment to her father's parents, who
already had one granddaughter from their eldest son. They had
hoped for a boy.
around us had this attitude that boys were valuable, girls were
less," Gao Mingxiang, Wang's paternal grandmother, said by
way of explanation but not apology.
stooped, Gao perched on the edge of her farmhouse "kang,"
a heated brick platform that in northern Chinese homes serves
as couch, bed and work area. She wore three sweaters, quilted
pants and slippers.
tall and graceful and dressed in Ugg boots and a sparkly blue
top, sat next to her listening, a sour expression on her face.
She wasn't shy about showing her lingering bitterness or her eagerness
to leave. She agreed to the visit to please her father but refused
to stay overnight despite a four-hour drive each way.
Harvard researcher, says that many Chinese households are like
this these days: a microcosm of third world and first world cultures
clashing. The gulf between Wang and her grandmother seems particularly
Gao grew up in Yixian, a poor corn- and wheat-growing county in
southern Liaoning province. At 20, she moved less than a mile
(about a kilometer) to her new husband's house. She had three
children and never dared to dream what life was like outside the
village. She remembers rain fell in the living room and a cherished
pig was sold, because there wasn't enough money for repairs or
on her daughter to help around the house so her two sons could
kids understood," said Gao, her gray hair pinned back with
a bobby pin, her skin chapped by weather, work and age. "All
families around here were like that."
mother, Zheng Hong, did not understand. She grew up 300 kilometers
(185 miles) away in the steel-factory town of Benxi with two elder
sisters and went to vocational college for manufacturing. She
lowers her voice to a whisper as she recalls the sting of her
in-law's rejection when her daughter was born.
of limited my contact with them after that," Zheng said.
"I remember feeling very angry and wronged by them. I decided
then that I was going to raise my daughter to be even more outstanding
than the boys."
her Qihua, a pairing of the characters for chess and art a constant
reminder of her parents' hope that she be both clever and artistic.
From the age
of six, Wang was pushed hard, beginning with ping pong lessons.
Competitions were coed, and she beat boys and girls alike, she
said. She also learned classical piano and Chinese flute, practiced
swimming and ice skating and had tutors for Chinese, English and
math. During summer vacations, she competed in English speech
contests and started using the name Mia.
In high school,
Wang had cram sessions for China's college entrance exam that
lasted until 10 p.m. Her mother delivered dinners to her at school.
She routinely woke up at 6 a.m. to study before class.
She had status
and expectations her mother and grandmother never knew, a double-edged
sword of pampering and pressure.
If she'd had
a sibling or even the possibility of a sibling one day, the stakes
might not have been so high, her studies not so intense.
population expert Yang Juhua has studied enrollment figures and
family size and determined that single children in China tend
to be the best educated, while those with elder brothers get shortchanged.
She was able to make comparisons because China has many loopholes
to the one-child rule, including a few cities that have experimented
with a two-child policy for decades.
single children are better off, particularly girls," said
Yang, who works at the Center for Population and Development Studies
at Renmin University. "If the girl has a brother then she
will be disadvantaged. ... If a family has financial constraints,
it's more likely that the educational input will go to the sons."
research shows clearly that it's better, education-wise, for girls
to be single children, she favors allowing everyone two kids.
think the (one-child) policy has improved female well-being to
a great extent, but most people want two children so their children
can have somebody to play with while they're growing up,"
said Yang, who herself has a college-age daughter.
said, China should relax the policy while also investing more
in education so that fewer families will be forced to choose which
child to favor when it comes to schooling.
have been made in reaching gender parity in education, other inequalities
remain. Women remain woefully underrepresented in government,
have higher suicide rates than males, often face domestic violence
and workplace discrimination and by law must retire at a younger
age than men.
to be seen whether the new generation of degree-wielding women
can alter the balance outside the classroom.
Wang, are already changing perceptions about what women can achieve.
When she dropped by her grandmother's house this spring, the local
village chief came by to see her. She was a local celebrity: the
first village descendent in memory to make it into Tsinghua University.
today, they can go out and do anything," her grandmother
said. "They can do big things."
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