The picture of serried ranks of men at the recent meeting of China's National People's Congress suggests there has been little progress on women's equality since Chairman Mao famously declared that 'women hold up half the sky'.

The spread of the MeToo movement and the lack of women's representation in parliaments and boardrooms around the world show gender inequality is a global issue. In many countries women are disadvantaged by poor education, workplace discrimination and traditional attitudes.

In China women enjoy high levels of literacy and good access to education, but conventional attitudes towards women are persistent. As China faces a growing demographic crisis efforts to relax harsh family planning policies are swinging in the opposite direction with official propaganda encouraging women to subvert career aspirations to become wives and mothers. This is only likely to reinforce inequality at work where women reportedly earn on average 65% as much as men who do similar work.

Chinese women have long campaigned against domestic abuse. The Anti-domestic Violence law was eventually enacted in 2016, but early observations suggest haphazard implementation. Police and families still have a preference for resolving disputes within the family. Chinese law lacks a clear definition of sexual harassment and most women are disinclined to report it. In March 2015, five women - the 'feminist five' - were detained by police for a month to disrupt their plans for raising awareness of sexual harrassment on public transport.

Despite paying lip service to women's rights championing feminism in China has become increasingly difficult. In a hardening political climate any kind of activism is seen to be suspect.

We have been working directly with local partners to promote women's rights such as projects to promote legal rights or to examine the impact of population policies on women's rights. We are also supporting local partners to integrate a gender strategy into their work. Many human rights defenders feel their work is challenging enough without having to address gender. However, over time we have welcomed the growing participation of women, particularly young women, and the leadership roles many of them now take on.

Previous page image by DaiLuo