Gender Equality, Not Discrimination, as a Route to Development in Rural China

Saturday, April 10, 2010
By Alexandra Elia

Female factory workers. Courtesy of Andrew Hitchcock.

Poverty, social discrimination, and inadequate health care plague many nations around the world, and while unique nations generally face different problems, there is one striking similarity within the developing world: women typically suffer disproportionately to men.[1] This paper seeks to explore some of the issues of gender inequality in rural China, where the rights to life, education, and employment are regularly denied based on gender.  Gender discrimination, which in the case of China is largely the result of cultural biases and government policy indirectly favoring male children from birth, is not only in itself a violation of human rights, but it is also a significant barrier to all aspects of development.  In spite of the widespread cultural prejudices in certain regions, Chinese development programs cannot succeed without securing gender equality.

Amartya Sen’s notion of “missing women” is a brilliant illustration of today’s gender inequality among certain groups in China,[2] where the ratio of surviving male to female infants is estimated to be 122:100.[3] Two main practices account for this trend: the inequitable distribution of family resources to support male children and the elective abortion — even outright murder — of female children.[4] While China is a nation traditionally favoring small families and male children,[5] the enactment of 1979 One-Child Family policy, which aimed to control population and to reduce the economic burden of emerging groups of rural poor, further exacerbated the male to female infant survival disparity.[6] Regions with stricter enforcement of this policy have a significantly higher male to female ratio.[7] The One-Child Family policy raises the question of whether it is responsible for the widespread understanding in some regions that killing female infants at birth is acceptable.[8] Such horrifying discrimination against female children, even before birth, is estimated to have cost the lives of 50 million Chinese women.[9] While the policy attempts to reduce the country’s population growth rate, and is, therefore, needed for development, it comes at an unnecessary expense. More effective policies investing in women’s education and establishing equal employment opportunities would achieve similar results without violating human rights.

Women’s education is central to containing population growth. Amartya Sen argues that the only two variables “that are seen to have a statistically significant effect on fertility are (1) female literacy and (2) female labor force participation.”[10] In rural China, however, educational opportunities are commonly unavailable to female children, who are instead pushed into unskilled positions at young ages, while male children are kept in school because of the perception that male children offer a better “financial return” [11] for parents, both by supporting them in rural fields and in old age.[12] As a result of this gender bias, illiteracy rates among women in rural China are between two to three times higher than those of their male counterparts.[13] Consequently, many women are prevented from holding positions of authority, if not even excluded from employment entirely. [14] Within rural China, for example, while 65% of women work, women occupy only 1-2% of the decision making roles.[15] While changing cultural biases against women may be impossible on an immediate basis, permitting women to enjoy education and economic opportunities will empower them to advocate for their human rights, not only resulting in fertility reduction but also leading to the benefit of the entire Chinese society. Estimates indicate that, at present, billions of dollars worth of China’s GDP are lost due to the active exclusion of women from the workforce.[16] Increased government funding for women’s education and prevention of work place gender discrimination are key to Chinese development.

It is undisputable that various actions of the Chinese government have succeeded in generating tremendous economic growth over the past 30 years. However, this narrowly focused approach towards economic growth has failed to deliver development.  Gender discrimination within China, especially in rural areas, is widespread. The Chinese government should endorse a plan to protect the equal rights of both men and women, starting with the repeal of the One Child Family policy.  A generation of better educated women, with equal employment opportunities, will be a crucial component for the nation’s long-term development. Until changes are made, the short-sighted economic “progress” that China demonstrates today will continue to occur at a heavy humanitarian cost.


[1] United Nations, “Women at a Glance,” May 1997, http://www.un.org/ecosocdev/geninfo/women/women96.htm

[2] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999, p. 104.

[3] United Nations in China. “Gender Inequality Persists in China,” March 2010,       http://www.un.org.cn/cms/p/news/27/1346/content.html

[4] The Economist, “Gendercide: Killed, Aborted or Neglected, At Least 100M Girls Have Disappeared – And the Number is Rising,” March 2010, http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15606229

[5] Therese Hesketh, Li Lu, and Zhu Wei Xing. “The Effect of China’s One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years,” New England Journal of Medicine, 2005 Volume 353, p. 1171-1176.  http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/353/11/1171

[6] Therese Hesketh and Wei Xing Zhu, “Health in China: The One Child Family Policy: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly,” British Medical Journal, 1997 Volume 314, p. 1685.  http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/314/7095/1685

[7] The Economist, “Technology, Declining Fertility and Ancient Prejudice are Combining to Unbalance Societies,” March 2010, http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15636231

[8] The Economist, “Technology, Declining Fertility and Ancient Prejudice are Combining to Unbalance Societies,” March 2010, http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15636231

[9] Gendercide Watch, “Case Study: Female Infanticide,” http://www.gendercide.org/case_infanticide.html

[10] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999, p. 218.

[11] Wendy Wang, “Son Preference and Educational Opportunities of Children in China— “I wish you were a boy!” Gender Issues,  2005, Vol 22, p. 3-30.

[12] United Nations, “China: Sex Ratio Imbalance,” August 2006, http://www.un.org/webcast/pdfs/unia-1024.pdf

[13] Xue Lan Rong and Tian Jian. “Inequality in Chinese Education,” Journal of Contemporary China, 2001, Vol 10, p. 107–124.  http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/apcity/unpan002178.pdf

[14] United Nations Industrial Development Organization in China, Annual Report 2009, http://www.un.org.cn/public/resource/aa6e326e8ede7d457218373104cad223.pdf

[15] United Nations in China. “Gender Inequality Persists in China,” March 2010, http://www.un.org.cn/cms/p/news/27/1346/content.html

[16] United Nations in China. “Gender Inequality Persists in China,” March 2010, http://www.un.org.cn/cms/p/news/27/1346/content.html

© 2010, Alexandra Elia. All rights reserved.

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