Rural women in China embrace more lifestyle choices with digital literacy, financial independence
Age of empowerment
Published: Dec 03, 2020 10:52 PM

Photo: CFP

Su Min finally escaped, after 30 years of fulfilling her "duties" as a wife, mother and grandmother. This week she is in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, driving a caravan by herself. She visited the world's biggest prayer wheel in Shangri-la and the iconic Three Pagodas in Dali.

Su, 56, is a housewife from Central China's Henan Province. Her married life was a cliché of millions of women - she raised her daughter and then her grandson while her husband barely cares for anything at home.

She had planned for a whole year and secretly saved money. Three months ago, she finally left everything behind and started her journey across China alone.

"This is the first time I feel free. The darkest time has passed. I don't want to work for everybody anymore," Su said in her vlog on Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok.

Su's story has resonated with netizens. "You represent so many traditional Chinese women, but you are beyond most of them," read a comment.

According to traditional values in China, women should stay at home, support their husbands, and raise and teach their children. Such a notion is prominent throughout China, especially less developed rural regions.

But the situation is changing with the rise of internet access and more women leaving their hometowns as migrant workers.

In recent years, more reports have surfaced chronicling women choosing an alternative lifestyle other than being confined in villages, for a new life and even true love. Data showed that divorces in rural areas among people aged 20 to 59 more than doubled between 2005 and 2015, from 9.42 to 21.26 per every 1,000 married couples.

Along with these empowered women's stories is people's awareness on gender equality, domestic violence and women's rights, as well as strengthened legal protections, experts and lawyers reached by the Global Times said.

Meanwhile, the other side of reality is that many Chinese women, especially those living in rural areas, are still struggling with a difficult life, fulfilling a heavy home duty, and some even encountered domestic violence. 

Finding freedom and love

Wang Hong (pseudonym) decided to use all of her savings, 30,000 yuan ($4,563), to hire a lawyer and sue for divorce.

Her husband raped her and subjected her to 18 years of emotional abuse.

Wang's husband was a shepherd in the mountains of Beijing, spending most of his time with sheep, ignoring his familial responsibilities. Wang said her life was dominated by housework as if she was a free nanny without any care from her husband.

Wang felt it was her duty to serve her husband and look after the children, but that all changed when she watched an emotional analysis program titled The Defense of Love, she said. The program helped her realize her marriage was not normal.

"I tried to communicate with my husband, wishing he could at least help me with some housework when I was sick, but the response I got was still a cold shoulder. At that point, I knew my marriage didn't seem right to continue, and I started researching online to try to figure out what I should be doing," Wang told the Global Times.

While negotiating a divorce, Wang was raped by her husband and wounded by him. Wang gathered evidence, called the police and sought a lawyer with the knowledge she had learned from the internet.

"The lawsuit cost me almost all my money, but I know I made the right decision. Now I'm free, I have my own job and I just need to live for myself," Wang said.

Zhang Jing was the lawyer who helped Wang escape. "Many people think that an unhappy marriage is a shameful thing. In the past, even in the face of great pain, Chinese rural women were not accustomed to asking for help to defend their legitimate rights and interests in marriage. To my regret, one of the most common words I hear when I talk to them is 'I'm used to it,'" Zhang told the Global Times. "But now, I've seen more rural women start to speak up for themselves," she said.

In an article published in late October, writer Mei Xiao shared an unusual phenomenon happening in his hometown county in North China's Hebei Province - the number of single fathers in town is increasing.

The less developed Hebei counties were deeply haunted by the idea of "son preference," causing a sharp gender imbalance. More young women have desperately left their hometowns after getting an education, further deepening this imbalance.

When young men could not find women of their age to marry, they turned to the older, married ones, which led many married women getting divorced or running away with their young lovers.

"The number of full families dropped rapidly. Many families consist of a single father and a child. The mother has long left," he wrote.

In 2018, the divorce rate in Hebei was 42.5 percent, the sixth highest in China.

Harsh reality

Wen, a lawyer at a Xi'an law firm, said reactionary thinking in rural areas leaves some residents believing a high bride price means women are their property. Living in rural and less industrialized areas also restricts women's ability to leave violent relationships.

Many of Wen's clients have similar experiences to Wang's.Women in remote rural areas are more likely to be isolated and must travel greater distances to get support from family and friends, and to access police. This is why women in rural areas of China are more likely to experience domestic violence than women living in major metropolitan centers, Wen said.

Recently, a 23-year-old woman who was abused to death by her husband and in-laws in East China's Shandong Province, prompted heated discussions online.

Initially, a local court in Dezhou of Shandong, gave "light punishments" to the perpetrators. Later following requests from the victim's family, the Dezhou Intermediate Court withdrew the previous verdict.  

The victim, surnamed Fang, was abused to death in January 2019 through beating, freezing, starving, and confinement by her husband and in-laws, after they found out that she could not get pregnant, according to media reports.  "We never saw her body, and they told us that she died of some illness," Fang's cousin told ifeng news. "She was 1.76 meters in height, and weighed over 80 kilograms before she got married, but when she died, she was only 30 kilograms."

"When talking about empowering women, we should not leave behind those women who are less-educated, less well-off, thus being more vulnerable to unfair treatment," said a feminist surnamed Chen. "Women's rights are human rights. We need to put in more effort in helping the neglected group."

Analysts pointed out such cases in rural areas like Fang's are rare, and the bigger picture of rural women is that more have been empowered to pursue a life they desire.

More support to provide 

Chinese women suffering gender violence and inequality can finally seek their own happiness thanks to comprehensive efforts, including legal protections, support from society - especially from other women - and China's increasing social mobility and digitalization.

China has several laws directly protecting women's rights and interests.

The country's New Marriage Law has been amended four times since it was first enacted in 1950, and the latest version of Family Copy in Civil Law Code will take effect next year. In 2016, China's Anti-Domestic Violence Law took effect. In 2005, China revised the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women promulgated in 1992.

Organizations and individuals, like Zhang Jing, are spreading awareness of these legal tools to those who need them.

Since 2013, Zhang has collaborated with China National Radio to broadcast a rural legal awareness program, introducing laws and regulations related to marriage in rural areas. 

"Previously, rural women had very limited access to legal information, even if they were aware of their rights. Now, the popularity of Douyin, Sina Weibo and other social media networks allow them to better see the outside world, and also gain more knowledge of ways to improve their marital status," Zhang said.

A women's hotel that has operated for 24 years and costs only 5 yuan ($0.76) a night in Jilin city, Northeast China's Jilin Province, has recently generated discussion on the internet, as most of the guests are married women who escape domestic abuse from their husbands. 

In spite of its shabby decor, the 10-bunk-bed hotel remains a haven where women can reclaim their lives, share their stories, and help each other find jobs and pay for medical care.

In addition to more teams of public interest attorneys bringing legal awareness activities to rural areas, grassroots police stations, women's federations and village committees have also joined together to create strong social support networks to intervene and mediate in the marriage problems of rural families, Zhang said. "Rural women are getting more help and have become more emboldened in marriage," she commented.

It shows a rise of gender equality, Luo Ruixue, a member of the Guangzhou-based women's rights protection group Women Awakening Network, told the Global Times.

With the availability of smartphones, more women are exposed to alternatives. Previously they might have felt divorce was shameful or a failure, but changing cultural trends are helping these women reassess old values and explore new ideas, Luo said. With increasing social development, there are more working opportunities for women that allow them to have a financial basis and quit their miserable marriages, Luo noted.

The gender equality awareness has not only risen among women, but also among men. In the past, people just saw something as "traditional," but now they could see the "uncomfortable" parts in it and discuss it, which is a positive process, she said.

Zhang Yutong contributed to the story