Unfair division of housework, postpartum depression, domestic violence and other women’s issues in the spotlight at Two Sessions 2021

Society & Culture

The unfair treatment of women is the subject of growing attention from the Chinese public, and this year from Chinese officials too. Here are five proposals concerning women’s rights being discussed at the big political conference in Beijing this week.

chinese women construction workers
China’s construction industry is rife with superstitions against female workers, which one NPC delegate hopes to change. Image from People’s Daily.

Statistically speaking, there has never been a better year for women’s representation at the Two Sessions — China’s annual series of political meetings that convened in Beijing and is set to last for the rest of the week.

According to state news agency Xinhua, the number of female lawmakers and political advisors at this year’s gatherings is at a record high, with 742 female deputies in the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) and 440 female members in the National Committee of the 13th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

But women still make up less than a quarter of all NPC deputies and CPPCC members, there is only one female member of the 15-person Standing Committee of the NPC, and there are no women in the 25-member Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, which really runs the country.  

On the bright side, though, many of the women at this year’s meetings are focusing their attention on women’s issues, and they are receiving much more attention than they had in past years. Conversations around women’s rights and policies have taken center stage in many online discussions.

Below, we sum up some of the most discussed policy proposals concerning women at this year’s Two Sessions:

1. Giving victims of domestic abuse larger shares of divorce property settlements 

Lí Xiá 黎霞, an NPC deputy and a lawyer from Guangdong Province, suggested that family law courts should attach more weight to intimate partner violence when distributing marital estate between separating spouses. She noted that in most divorce cases that involved domestic violence, abusive partners were ordered to pay an average of 10,000 yuan ($1,537) in compensation to victims, which she thought was so “insultingly low” that it wouldn’t have “a deterrent effect.”

“I proposed that the average amount of compensation should be increased significantly,” Li said (in Chinese) in an interview. “In the meantime, domestic violence should directly affect how property is divided between divorcing spouses. Specifically, abusers should get less or even none as a punishment.”

China’s first-ever anti-domestic violence law just turned five years old on March 1. On paper, the law allows victims to seek protection through legal tools like restraining orders, and advocates for the implementation of education on the subject in schools. In practice, many police officials still dismiss cases of intimate partner violence as family matters that should be settled within the home, and abusers are rarely held accountable for their behavior. 

2. Eliminating college admission policies that favor men

NPC member Dèng Lì 邓丽, former deputy chair of state organization the All-China Women’s Federation, proposed measures (in Chinese) to make Chinese colleges safer and fairer for female students. She called for an end to gender-based discrimination in college admissions, saying that except for some special majors and programs, schools should not set enrollment quotas based on gender, or admit men with lower grades and test scores to create a gender balance. Deng also demanded that colleges offer self-defense classes and safety education to female students because they are “more vulnerable to on-campus sexual harassment and assault.”

For many years, Chinese women were in the minority in higher education. But that has changed: A 2019 report released by the National Bureau of Statistics showed that women made up 51.7% of all undergraduate students and they earned nearly 50.6% of all master’s degrees. In fact, over the past decade, female students became so dominant that some colleges overtly or covertly started to give men a boost in the admissions process. The practices were defended by the central government, which once defended the discriminatory policies as in the “national interest” when facing protests from Chinese feminists. 

3. Getting men to do their share of the housework 

Around the world, women collectively spend billions more hours than men on unpaid labor at home. China is no exception: According to a 2018 survey by the National Bureau of Statistics, Chinese women performed an average of two hours and six minutes of housework each day, compared with 45 minutes for men.

This household inequity is the subject of a proposal submitted by Yáng Jūnrì 杨军日, who argued (in Chinese) that the National Health and Family Planning Commission should roll out policies to help Chinese people establish a better work-life balance and encourage a more equal allocation of household responsibilities between men and women.

Last month, in a landmark divorce case under China’s new Civil Code, a Beijing court ordered a man to pay his ex-wife 50,000 yuan ($7,743) for five years of unpaid labor at home during their marriage.

4. Abolishing superstition-fueled discrimination against women in construction 

Let’s get this straight: No industries should shut women out for any reasons. But among those that are terribly hostile to women, China’s construction industry is perhaps the one that rejects women for the most ridiculous reasons. The discrimination is larged based on a superstition that women bring bad luck to construction sites, especially when building tunnels — very much like why women were historically forbidden from sailing on military vessels or merchant boats because captains believed their presence would anger the sea gods and cause treacherous conditions. 

At this year’s Two Sessions, Tián Chūnyàn 田春艳, a NPC delegate and an engineer, took aim at (in Chinese) the myth, saying that the misconception, while wildly sexist and absurd, still found many believers in China’s construction industry, creating additional barriers for female engineers. 

5. Increasing screenings for maternal depression

CPPCC member Féng Dānlóng 冯丹龙 proposed (in Chinese) that China should require doctors to screen new mothers for mental health problems — once while they are pregnant and again, after they give birth. Calling maternal depression an “under-discussed problem,” Feng said in an interview that because of deep-seated taboos surrounding mental health issues, and the societal tendency to dismiss women’s depressive symptoms as “attention-seeking tactics,” many new mothers struggling with postpartum depression were left untreated.

Nationally, postpartum depression affects around 15 percent of new mothers, and up to 70 percent of mothers may experience depressive feelings after giving birth, according to the Chinese Medical Doctor Association (in Chinese).