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Fighting to Save, Respect the Girl Child

A visit to a school usually brings out a smile in an adult, seeing children play and create a cacophony that strangely sounds melodious. But former gymnastics champion Mo Huilan felt a bit sad when she visited a school in the mountains of Jingzhou in Hubei Province over the weekend.

"I could see the number of boys was three times that of the girls," she wrote in her blog. "It seems that many families in rural areas still pin their hope on boys. I hope more people pay attention to the girl child."

Mo's trip to the school was part of a national drive called "Care for Girls". Such a campaign is necessary to correct gender imbalance at birth and to promote gender equality, Li Bin, minister of National Population and Family Planning Commission, said on Thursday. Li was speaking on China's population and family planning policy and practices over the past three decades at a national forum in Beijing.

The campaign will help the formulation and carrying out of more policies for girls' healthy growth and women's development. She conceded, though, that serious gender imbalance at birth would remain a major social problem and complicate the population growth trend in the country.

Today, there are more boys than girls in all municipalities, provinces and autonomous regions except Tibet, said Yuan Xin, professor of population and development with Nankai University in Tianjin.

Though the slanted gender growth has slowed in the past few years, a sample census of the National Bureau of Statistics shows the average ratio is 120.2 boys for every 100 girls last year.

Earlier census and sample surveys have shown the higher the birth rate the more skewed the sex ratio becomes.

For instance, the imbalance between first-born boys and girls was relatively low (108.41:100) in 2005. But it rose to 143.22 boys for the second child and 152.88 boys for the third. "Clearly, parents go in for pre-natal sex determination tests during the second and subsequent pregnancies." Scholars have warned that between 2030 and 2040, men will outnumber women by 30 million in the country.

Gender imbalance will create a lot of social problems, Yuan warned. Men in rural areas, especially in poor areas, will have more difficulty finding a wife. Competitions in the job market will become more severe, especially where only men can be employed, and society will have to shoulder a heavier economic burden to take care of the elderly. And unfortunately, women who give birth to boys will still be the target of traditional bias.

The government has taken and is taking steps to correct the gender imbalance at birth, Li said. It has outlawed illegal pre-natal sex-determination tests and female feticide, and stepped up campaigns to deal with female infanticides and kidnappings.

The government will introduce a support system for families, especially those in rural areas, which have practiced family planning, Li said, and it will improve the reward system for one-child parents. There are about 80 million one-child families in China, 30 million of them in rural areas.

Li's commission will explore new policies, such as offering insurance to children born within the family planning framework. Besides, improved preferential policies are in the pipeline for one-child rural families, including a proposed safety net for the elderly.

But scholars have said the country has to overcome legal and policy hurdles before introducing new policies. The laws still have loopholes, Yuan said. For instance, there's no legal ground for filing charges against doctors who perform pre-natal sex-determination tests or female feticide. The laws don't address the frustration of rural women who lose their land, either.

Li Shuzhuo, professor of public policy and management at Xi'an Jiaotong University, said the preferential policies in favor of one-child farming families don't make much sense today after the introduction of policies to ease farmers' financial burden. Families with more than one child seem to benefit more from the new policies.

China should start measuring its policies against the yardstick of gender equality to change those that lead to gender discrimination, though it would take time to effect such policy changes.

Despite the hurdles ahead, Li Shuzhuo and many others are engaged in the national "Care for Girls" program. As a deputy leader of the experts' advisory group to the national "Care for Girls" program office, the professor believes the program is sowing the seeds of better women's development in areas that have piloted the program.

The core work should start with empowering women, Li Shuzhuo said, citing the cases of a disabled woman who overcame poverty with financial and technical help, and a middle-aged woman who earlier was content playing mahjong but now leads a network of woman pigeon-breeders.

Last night, the National Population and Family Planning Commission, in cooperation with the All China Journalists' Association, honored 10 people who have contributed to the uplift of girls and women, especially rural girls. Li Shuzhuo was among them.

Ma Zhiying, 43, a laid-off worker in Haiyuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, too, was bestowed the honor. Over the past 11 years, she has helped 186 girls continue their studies. Without her help they could not have pursued higher education. "For me, true poverty comes from ignorance, and I hope all of them fly out of these drought-ridden mountains like wild geese to prosper," Ma said.

(China Daily October 24, 2008)

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