1 February 1999


1 February 1999

Press Release



Chinese women today faced bitter clashes between family responsibilities and competition for employment, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was told this afternoon, as it continued the current phase of its consideration of China's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

In the tide of a market economy, women in China did not want to lag behind, a member of the Chinese delegation told the 23-member expert body which monitors compliance with the Convention. Yet, Chinese women still needed to balance their traditional social and family roles with their emerging presence in the nation's development. On the one hand, their determination and competitive spirit had been bolstered by wide-ranging legislative and economic reform. Flexible employment environments had also facilitated their new-found business success. On the other hand, deeply entrenched stereotypes had threatened to hold them back.

Indeed, several experts expressed concern that such deep-seated prejudices would impede implementation of the Women's Convention. The challenges stemming from the economic transition, along with the sheer size of the population, were daunting. Those problems included illiteracy, unemployment, trafficking and the gap in development between rural and urban areas. One expert supported a holistic approach to the problems, and expressed disappointment that the most senior government organ to address women's issues was a national working committee on women and children.

Moreover, simply adopting legislation did not always give it the "teeth" to be enforced, she added. There were measures to fight trafficking, for example, but those laws had not been implemented. Conversely, there were no laws in the area of domestic violence, and no shelters for the victims of such abuse. Despite new labour laws, protection in private enterprise for women particularly vulnerable to exploitation as a result of the new economic

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reforms was virtually non-existent. The land ownership legislation had seemed appropriate, but the de facto situation was disturbing: even now, when the marital status of a Chinese woman changed, she lost her right to land.

Of particular interest was the population policy, she said. China had a serious problem on its hands, for which several problems needed to be addressed. For instance, women had been the sole targets of contraceptive measures, and of alleged reproductive abuse -- in the name of family planning. Those had included sterilizations and forced abortions, detention to those who had exceeded the quotas, and destruction of their housing. The status of illegal children, many of them girls, was also disturbing. Those youngsters were unregistered and, therefore, officially non-existent, thereby rendering them ineligible for such basic services as education and health care.

In an impassioned plea, she implored the Chinese Government to disseminate the text of the Convention as broadly as possible. Integrating the concept of women's rights as human rights would greatly improve the status of women in China and the overall development of Chinese society. Human suffering had sometimes accompanied implementation of the Government's worthy plans. To break the cycle of violence and make human rights a pillar of Chinese culture -- "just read the Convention; read it again and again and again, and think about what it means", she said.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 2 February, to consider the initial report of Hong Kong, submitted by the Government of China.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the third and fourth periodic reports of China (document CEDAW/C/CHN/3-4, September 1998). The reports have been submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which provides for States parties to submit reports on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to implement the provisions of the Convention.

The third and fourth periodic reports of China cover its compliance with the Convention from 1989 to 1995, with particular emphasis on the period following the Committee's consideration of China's second report in 1992. The reports present basic facts and figures about Chinese women; describe China's implementation of the Convention; and outline the measures taken by the Chinese Government to follow up the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. (For background on the reports, see Press Release WOM/1092, issued this morning.)

Replies by Government Members of the Chinese delegation continued their replies to questions posed by Committee experts, following the meeting of their pre-sessional working group from 11 to 15 January. Highlights of those replies follow:

-- In 1997, women made up 46.6 per cent of the working population in the country, and 45 per cent of the total number of laid-off workers;

-- Various policies and strategies had been worked out by the State for the re-employment of laid off workers, including the 1993 Re-employment Project, which aimed to protect the employment rights of workers, including those of women, and to get all laid-off workers into Re-employment Service Centres to provide free vocational training, guidance and employment information within half a year;

-- To help laid-off female workers get re-employed, some special policies had been formulated by the Government, among which were organizing laid-off female workers in free training according to the demands of labour markets, and to provide employment information and guidance;

-- Under the new Labour Law, there were specific prohibitions regarding women's work. For example, it was prohibited for female workers, during their menstrual periods, to engage in work high above the ground, under low temperature or in cold water;

-- Also, it was prohibited to arrange for female workers who had been pregnant for seven months or more to work in extended working hours or to work night shifts;

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-- Over the years, with governmental efforts at all levels, the principle of equal pay for equal work had been followed across the country, and income difference between men and women was mainly the result of differences in the type of work;

-- In China, in addition to the medical care and retirement pension women workers and staff enjoyed, as men did, women enjoyed special care and protection in four periods (menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and breast- feeding), as well as maternal security and child-care services;

-- The Chinese Government had made special policies for child-care facilities, and demanded that all State-owned enterprises, institutions and women-concentrated, collectively-owned enterprises establish nurseries and kindergartens;

-- In the development of a socialist market economy, women faced greater challenges and competition; they had also faced a flexible and wide-ranging employment environment that had provided some women with opportunities to give full play to their capabilities and talents, and many of them had become entrepreneurs, managers and professionals;

-- In the tide of a market economy, women did not want to lag behind, and their self-determination, pioneering and competitive spirits, and sense of risk-taking had all been strengthened in varying degrees; at the same time, they were also confronted with more social problems, such as a heavier daily work load and bitter clashes between family responsibilities and competition for employment;

-- Efforts had been put into popularizing modern delivery methods, health care for women and children, prevention and control of frequently occurring diseases and elementary knowledge of hygiene and sanitation; much had also been done to train midwives and gynaecological and paediatric medical workers in economically less developed areas; in addition, free medical care was provided for women in Tibet and other regions;

-- China was facing a real challenge as AIDS was spreading very fast in the country; it was estimated that if nothing was done to enhance present controls, by the year 2000, over a million people would be infected; if women were found to be HIV positive, they could get pre-test and post-test counselling;

-- China's family planning policy could not simply be described as a one-child policy;

-- It was actually composed of three policies: in the urban areas, it was advocated that one couple have one child; in the rural areas, those families who had practical difficulties and wished to have a second child, do

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so with proper spacing; couples for ethnic groups usually had two or three children;

-- There were no specific requirements for the people of ethnic groups that had a very small population;

-- Abandoning of female babies was a historical legacy in Chinese society, and still existed for many reasons in some areas, particularly in remote mountainous areas; one reason was that social productivity in some remote rural areas still retained its low level, and agricultural production had to depend on manual labour. Some measures taken by the Chinese Government against that phenomenon were: to set up and complete a delivery and birth registration system; to upgrade children's social welfare institutions; and to do everything possible to help eligible families to adopt children and set up a lawful private child-adoption channel;

-- In 1990, the sex ratio at birth had risen to 111 females per 100 males; to address that situation, the Government had undertaken a number of measures, including educating the people and publicizing the idea of equality between men and women and the equal value of boys and girls;

-- According to the Programme for the Development of Chinese Women (1995- 2000), literacy and skill training would be conducted among 10 million women in poor areas so that they could acquire at least one skill each -- on average, there should be at least one female technician in agriculture or animal husbandry in each village;

-- The support services provided to rural women included information and counselling about what to grow or raise, fodder, market, skills, and assistance in marketing; and

-- Rural women had had more freedom to go to the urban areas, and the number of rural women going to the cities had risen steadily over the years.

Questions and Comments by Experts

AIDA GONZALEZ (Mexico), the Committee Chairperson, thanked the Chinese delegation for providing responsive information to the numerous experts' questions. The size and level of the delegation was commendable.

Another expert also expressed appreciation for the many high-level officials who had travelled to New York to address the Committee. Clearly, the Chinese Government was making very extensive and comprehensive efforts to deal with the situation of Chinese women, eliminate discrimination against them and advance their equality. The challenges seemed to be enormous. Coming from a small country, she said just the magnitude of the population which the Chinese Government had to manage was almost overwhelming.

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The problems resulting from the economic reforms and their impact on Chinese women were particularly challenging, she said. Those included illiteracy, unemployment, trafficking and the gap in development between rural and urban areas. Also disturbing were the deep-set prejudices and traditional attitudes towards women, which were impeding implementation of the Convention. The magnitude of those issues was enormous in China, and required addressing the fundamental root issue of traditional attitudes towards women. The most senior governmental organ was a national working committee on women and children; she would have expected to see an independent coordinating body -- a national machinery -- concerned solely with women.

She said that while much had been achieved in the area of mother-child health, very little had been done on women's health, beyond their maternal functions. The Government also spoke again and again of protecting the rights and interests of women, but the issue was their empowerment, not their protection. The Government had said it was focused on developing and strengthening the law, but a discrepancy existed between the legal situation and enforcement on the ground. She suggested that the text of the Convention be disseminated as broadly as possible, and that people be encouraged to read it and to think about its meaning. Integrating the concept of women's rights as human rights would do much to improve the status of women in China and the general development of Chinese society.

Had the Convention ever been invoked? she asked. There were measures to fight trafficking, but those laws needed to be enforced. In the area of domestic violence, a lot could be learned from other places. Meanwhile, the Chinese Government had no laws on domestic violence, and no shelters for the victims of such abuse. Also absent was labour protection in private enterprise and its enforcement for women who were particularly vulnerable to exploitation as a result of the new economic reforms. The legislation to deal with the problem of land ownership had seemed appropriate, but the de facto situation was very different. Even today, when women in China changed their marital status, they lost their rights to land.

A holistic approach to Chinese women was needed, she went on. On the subject of suicide, the Government had devised legal aid measures to combat it, but no mention had been made of mental health measures. Prostitution was illegal, but in order to really take care of women forced into prostitution by various factors -- including economic -- it was essential to decriminalize that practice for women. Given the HIV/AIDS issue, it was also necessary for the Government to take care of the prostitutes' sexual health. Of particular interest was the population policy. It was obvious that China had a serious problem on its hands, and that several problems needed to be addressed. For instance, women had been the targets of contraceptive measures. There was no reason why men were not targeted also, especially given that only 14 per cent of the men used contraceptives.

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The expert had heard consistent reports of abuse of power by local officials in implementing their policies, including serious violations of human rights. She had heard about forced abortions and sterilizations; about the detention of citizens in order to implement the family planning policy; and about housing that had been demolished to punish those who had exceeded the quotas. While the Government claimed it did not condone such measures, it needed to make clear that those measures were prohibited. Moreover, it must take administrative or other sanctions against officials operating outside their authority. The status of illegal children, many of them girls, was also a deep concern. Those were apparently unregistered and, therefore, officially non-existent. Thus, they were not entitled to education or health care or any other basic necessities.

If, as the Government had said, sex-elected abortion and the abandonment of children were illegal, it needed to prohibit those activities, she said. Having personally met some women a few months ago who had left China, she had heard personal stories of reproductive abuse first hand. She wished to make a personal plea on their behalf. Development should not come at the cost of human suffering. The goals of the Chinese Government, as worthy as they might be, were sometimes achieved at a needless human cost. To break the cycle of violence and introduce the discourse of human rights into Chinese culture -- "just read the Convention; read it again and again and again, and think about what it means", she said.

An expert noted the imbalance between the population of men and women China. Usually, in most countries, women represent about 51 or 52 per cent of the population, but the situation in China was totally different. There seemed to be a natural discrimination against women. She asked whether tradition had contributed to that imbalance. While there had been considerable efforts made in formulating policies towards women, what was lacking was a policy which forever abandoned traditional attitudes and put forward total equality. Despite the vast amount of information presented, she said that she had not received a clear picture of the de facto situation of women in the country. It was also noted that while a lot had been done to change the image of women, a strong publicity campaign was needed to raise awareness of issues, particulary infanticide.

Another expert said that by resolving the problems of one fifth of the world's women, China would have achieved a lot. Many of the problems the country had to solve were similar to those confronting other developing countries.

With regard to the All-China Women's Federation, she said she did not understand how a woman became a member of that Federation. Also, she requested information on what types of non-governmental organizations existed in the country besides those connected to professional women. A question was also asked about the participation of women in all levels of trade unions.

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Concerning the trafficking of women, it was asked whether there were any social measures in place to deter the trafficking in and buying of women. There was also a question regarding the influence of international law, including the Convention, on China's national law.

Regarding family planning, it was noted by an expert that China's family planning policy represented a form of discrimination against Chinese women, in that some Chinese women were allowed to have one child, while women of minority groups were allowed to have two or three children.

Turning to the situation of rural women, an expert noted that rural women constituted almost 74 per cent of workers in the agricultural sector. While the responses of the Chinese delegation made it clear that serious efforts were being made in the field of literacy, the illiteracy rate needed to be addressed further. In addition, she noted that there was no mention of the availability of microcredit to rural women, and suggested that the Government consider that measure.

Another expert said that, given the level of poverty of rural women and the entrenched paternal values that existed, it was absolutely essential that they participate from the very beginning in programmes designed to assist them, so their concerns were fully taken into account.

Also on the situation of rural women, an expert asked about the structures that dealt with their problems, particularly about the composition of the village committees. They seemed to be acting as village courts, and, if that was the case, she asked how they did that and how many cases they could take up.

Experts also stated that the translation of the Convention into local languages would better inform women about their rights, especially in rural areas. In addition, the Convention could be taught in schools to teach children more about gender equality in an effort to advance the promotion of women.

Concerning the national machinery in China, the Working Committee on Women and Children, an expert asked how that institution operated.

One expert noted that the figures given in the report on various crimes against women were too rounded. She asked whether those figures represented reported cases or the number of convictions.

Another expert wanted to know whether the premarital health certificate was compulsory and a precondition for marriage.

On minorities, one expert asked about the exact situation of specific regions in the country, such as Tibet. She wanted to know whether most policies applicable in the rest of China were also applicable in those areas.

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China, through its transformation from colonialism and feudalism, was a society which now offered real opportunities for the participation of all of its citizens. Clearly, however, it had not yet been possible to achieve gender equality, and many of the challenges still confronted the Chinese Government in fully implementing all the provisions of the conventions. Over the past 50 years, China had taken a historical leap forward, including in the situation of women. For the first time, their rights had been regarded as human rights, whereas in feudal times, Chinese women had been kept in the most unimaginable situations.

The deep-rooted stereotypes in Chinese society would be extremely difficult to erase, she said. Changing people's mindset, however, would turn adopted laws into reality. She sought additional information in the area of family planning and birth control, specifically how the Government was dealing with discrimination against women and the girl child. The refusal to identify the sex of a baby in advance was actually a way of protecting girl children. That must be accompanied by consciousness-raising campaigns, however, in order to better resolve the problems facing China and other countries in the region in that respect. It was disconcerting that practices that should have long been forgotten were happening in today's China.

Another expert sought information on whether the Government had taken specific measures to reinstate the victims of trafficking and involve them in mainstream Chinese society. "You have rescued them, but have you done nothing to integrate them into the nation-building under way"? she asked. Aside from a "lady minister of education", there was also a "lady minister of science and technology". Given the priority for the incoming millennium of developing science and technology, a woman in that role might contribute much to advancing women overall.

Another expert said she was most impressed that, unlike other developing countries, China's economic reformation had been successful. The country's gross domestic product (GDP) had grown nearly 9 per cent, thereby paving the way for social choices, freedoms and a significantly reduced poverty level. Moreover, the Government had synthesized the market economy with concern for the poor. In light of such exemplary improvements, it was extremely disappointing that China's vast economic power had virtually bypassed women. The economic advancement had served men, but the benefits to women had been marginal at best. It seemed that women had to pay a disproportionately high price for the country's development. Indeed, women and girls even suffered the negative effects of those policies, such as cuts in welfare policies.

The report had elaborated the measures undertaken to help rural women, but it had not compared their situation to that of urban women, or assessed, in any qualitative way, how their lives had been improved, she said. It was also clear that the high economic growth rate had yielded a large number of lay-offs among women, and the income gap had increased among the urban and

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rural areas. A high percentage of rural women still led a poverty-stricken life. What programmes had the Government put in place to cover agriculturally displaced women and supply them with the skills to cope with industrialization? she asked. Due to the highly competitive nature of a free market economy, workers had been unable to earn even the minimum wage. It was, therefore, extremely important to have a trade union for women.

She also asked if school textbooks had been reviewed to remove any gender bias, and whether the Government had undertaken any efforts to modify sex stereotypes. The very high illiteracy rate in China was totally unacceptable. In that context, she asked what percentage of the national budget had been allocated to education and what time frame had been set for achieving universal education.

Another expert noted that the Women's Convention had been one of the first to reflect a holistic concept of human rights. China's performance in the area of economic and social rights had set an example of human resource development for many developing countries. It was nonetheless surprising to learn of the high illiteracy rate among Chinese women. The Government needed to focus on that aspect of development in order to integrate women into the model and provide them with life chances. It was also important that the Government recognize the need to implement "macro policies" at the grass-roots level, admittedly, an enormous problem for a country like China. She also sought information on the condition of women prisoners and on the anguishing problem of trafficking.

She said that the report had lacked statistics. As China was such a large and politically decentralized country, she requested a breakdown of activities by provinces. She also pointed out that any amendment of the labour and equality laws should expressly incorporate a definition of unintentional discrimination. The further development of the country into a market economy made it ripe for the emergence of many areas of unintentional discrimination. Similar efforts had to be redoubled in the privatization process.

She also expressed concern about the loss of housing and pension rights in the event of long-term unemployment, and asked whether that was the onset of "old-age poverty". She also sought information on the existence of women's trade unions outside the old China federation of trade unions, and about the informal employment sector. Were Chinese women amply compensated for piecemeal work for factories, as street vendors or housekeepers? she asked. And, how did the Government protect them? Those workers had tended to be marginal in many countries. She also sought clarification on the issue of land ownership.

On the issue of violence against women, China was not alone, she said. In fact, in every country, violence was a crucial impediment to women's human rights; it had destroyed their human dignity and very often endangered their

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lives. Even the relatively small population of Liechtenstein, whose compliance with the Convention had been considered at the current session, had invited the Secretary-General's Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women to its country. The Chinese Government, in these very difficult times of economic transition, might extend a similar invitation to the Special Rapporteur to highlight its seriousness about that question. The Special Rapporteur might also visit the autonomous regions, including Tibet.

An expert raised concern over the free zones that had been established as a result of the opening up of China's economy. What kind of labour rules were applied to workers there, particularly women workers? Another expert stated that in the context of the creation of free zones and an economy that was opening itself up to foreign investment, it was very important that workers be given the right to strike. When China had adopted the Labour Code for the first time in 1995, to protect the rights of workers, there had been no provision concerning the right to strike. There were hardly any countries, where free zones had opened up, where workers had not been exploited. If workers did not have the right to strike, they were being exposed to exploitation. While strikes should be a last resort for workers, it was a right they should be given. She also noted that sexual harassment was not considered an issue in China, and said that the matter was very important since there was a tendency to have a lot of sexual harassment where free zones had been created.

Some experts raised concern over the fact that there had been so many women born who had not been registered. What had happened to them? Given the current growth rate and the proportion of men to women, an expert warned that China would end up being a predominantly male country.

On the other hand, one expert noted some of the positive aspects of China's one-child policy. By the introduction of the country's policy, the population of the world had declined significantly. China's geographic domain could not possibly sustain such a large population, which also contributed to environmental degradation and a slowdown in socio-economic development. If their policy had been implemented back in the 1950s, when it had first been proposed, China could have enjoyed faster development and fewer human rights problems.

She added that women's tragedies, especially in rural areas, were triggered by the traditional mindsets of rural people. The desire for a boy child was greater there, since they were considered stronger for rural labour and were expected to take care of parents in old age. That was the main reason why women were coerced to have a second child if the first child was a girl.

Regarding the outcome of the Beijing Conference, one expert said that Beijing had become a household word in many countries, and, therefore, it should be a priority of China to ensure that critical areas of the Beijing

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Declaration were implemented. The Women's Convention was the legal framework for implementing that Declaration and the Platform for Action.

Statements by Government

A representative of the Chinese delegation said that the 1990 ratio for the proportion of women to men was given because, since China was such a large country, with 31 provinces, it conducted a census only every 10 years. An updated figure would only be available after the next census. Also, some traditions were very difficult to change. The need for a male heir, especially in rural areas, resulted in a high number of selective abortions. The Government had objected to the use of coercive measures and had always advocated the use of contraception. Due to the lack of education at the grass-roots level, some coercive measures were taken to achieve the desired results.

QIN HUASUN, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations, said that today's exchange had been constructive for improving the status of women in his country. Some recommendation would be particularly helpful with regard to the new challenges that would be faced in the context of the reform process. China was an ancient country with old legacies and had many problems to solve. Today's comments would further advance the status of Chinese women and improve China's implementation of the Convention.

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For information media. Not an official record.