| Global Times | 2012-7-26 18:45:04
By Lin Meilian in Guangdong
Zhang Shunying, deputy Party secretary of Shangxi village, Shantou, poses for a photo in her office. Photo: Lin Meilian/GT
An embarrassing scenario is often repeated as a woman and a group of male officials sit in an office discussing village affairs. A villager comes in and directly approaches a male official to voice their concerns. Then the male official turns and reports the problems to the woman. Although she outranks them, she is often ignored.
She joined the village committee back in 2008. Sadly, being the only woman, she often remains quiet during meetings, seldom giving her two cents on village affairs.
Nobody would expect that 39-year-old Zhang Shunying, deputy Party Secretary of Shangxi village, Shantou, Guangdong Province, would become an example for women officials after a week of training.
"I know I don't enjoy high prestige among the villagers, but I try to prove that I am friendlier and more approachable than my male colleagues," Zhang told the Global Times.
Women like Zhang account for about 21 percent of over 465,000 government officials in Guangdong Province. For the very first time, there is at least a woman in every one of 25,370 village committees across the province.
However, nationwide, this impressive tableau tapers away. At the provincial level, only one Party secretary - Sun Chunlan in Fujian Province - and only one provincial governor - Li Bin in Anhui Province - are women.
To solve this disparity, a project named the Rural Women Officials Training Pilot Program has been jointly organized by Guangdong's Shantou University and the Li Ka-shing Foundation. Started back in 2010, it aims to promote political participation among rural women and works to ensure parity between genders in the grassroots political arena.
Lai Xiaolin, a psychology professor from Shantou University and one of the trainers on the project, told the Global Times that rural women officials in China are facing increasing pressure. "This pressure is beyond compare," she said. "It is hard for them to work on their careers while fulfilling a traditional role within the family. This is particularly true in rural areas, which are still full of social conflicts and discrimination."
Over 4,300 female officials from Guangdong, Guangxi and Anhui province have participated in the training program since it began and have studied policy, law, computer skills, and crisis management.
Two years ago, when Zhang was elected as deputy Party Secretary, she said she had to think twice before taking on the task. "I didn't really want to accept the job. Because the harder you work, the easier it is to offend people," she said.
"When you are not an official, people say good things about you; when you are an official, people play up your shortcomings," she added.
But now, she said she is gearing up to become a force for good in the village.
"I have become more confident in voicing my opinion in a male-dominated setting on the committee and villagers have started coming directly to me for advice and help."
Training women leaders
Chinese history has not been kind to women, keeping them on the bottom rung of society. Even today, women make up 60 percent of the rural workforce and enjoy less respect and status than men in the workplace.
Similar training programs have been launched all over the country by the All-China Women's Federation to encourage women to stand up for their own rights.
Professor Lai said they do not expect that these female officials will all have the ambition of scaling the political ziggurat, but the program aims to empower them nonetheless.
Limited education, however, has become an obstacle to their participation in politics. Only 42 percent of women aged over 30 in China have received a high school education and further training opportunities are rare.
"If the training didn't specifically require women to participate, I wouldn't have the chance to go," Zhang quips. She made friends and shared experiences with other female officials from around China. In class, they voiced their concerns and views on how to handle rural conflicts or disputes. For those having trouble writing, discussion panels or artistic settings were put in place to assist them.
Among some 30 students in the class, four women, including Zhang for a seed project she put forward, won a 4,000 yuan cash prize. Zhang said she is going to use the money to build up an entertainment area equipped with computers, books, and a television in her village.
The project has ended but the women have a long way to achieve true equality.
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