It was 1949 when the Republic of China became the People’s Republic, following the victory of the People’s Liberation Army against the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Shek. Speaking before a crowd of millions of Chinese people at the Tiananmen Square during the inauguration of a new government, their leader, Chairman Mao declared boldly, “Today, the people of China have stood up.”
Inspiring words but not completely true, if one imagines that ‘stood up’ meant that China was prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with the world’s industrialised nations. At the time, the People’s Republic was still largely feudal, populated by poor, hardly literate peasants. What they had was a mobilised population who possessed an implacable will to modernise so as to be able to claim a foremost position in the new world order.
What they agreed was to take whatever steps as would bring an end to a period they described as the ‘years of humiliation,’ when foreign powers, taking advantage of its relative weakness, turned the once proud kingdom into a semi-colony. Of the formula to be attempted, of the steps to be taken, its leadership, led by Chairman Mao, understood one thing – the task of modernising China would require transforming the place of women in the Chinese society.
“Women hold up half of the sky,” is another of his famous statements. When Mao made it, women in some parts of China were having problems walking to think too much about holding up half of anything. Victims of bound feet, a brutal custom that involved breaking the toes of girl-children so that their feet could stay small, most women lived in such pain that they were pretty much homebound.
The communist party banned the practice, along with polygamy. It also banned forced marriages and child marriages, common practices in old China, and conferred rights to an education to girls and to workforce participation, to inherit and to divorce to women. Along with the changes in laws, the government built the state capacity to enforce them. Rape became a crime punishable with a 10-year jail term, and in cases of ‘serious circumstances’ as defined by the criminal code, by death.
Today, following the opening up of communist China and its integration into the global marketplace, the country boasts the highest number of women millionaires and billionaires in the world. Beyond the rich, women workers have also benefitted from the economic opportunities, representing 44 per cent in a workforce in which they command equal pay for equal work.
Political representation is one area where their achievements have not been as resounding, however, with women representing just 20 per cent of their legislature. In contrast, in Nigeria, when the imperative of empowering women and girls is raised, many lose interest in the conversation, with some acting as if male privileges are a cultural birthright that must not be changed.
The truth is that only when a country begins to empower its women, only when it begins to ensure that obstacles in the way of their equitable, comprehensive and safe participation in the society are removed, does such a country signal its seriousness to tackle the challenge of national development. There is just no way to move Nigeria forward while holding its women and girls back.
China’s unwillingness to continue with norms that allow men to play the role of petty tyrants in relation to women there freed up the society to sue for international greatness. Now, the most powerful countries of the world vie for access to their markets and seek political partnerships with a modern China. Here, we are still debating whether a 12-year-old girl can be married off, while women and girls are hemmed in by cultural practices that should be banned, and while our national legislature has less
For the concluding part of this story and others, grab your copy of The Point from your nearest vendor