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Last Updated: Monday, 19 June 2006, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Traditions weigh on China's women
By Christopher Allen

In China, one woman kills herself every four minutes.

Woman farmer working in an irrigation field in Hongsipu, Ningxia (Photo: Jonathan Lewis)
The suicide rate is three times higher in rural areas than urban

According to World Health Organisation statistics, China is the only country in the world where more women commit suicide than men.

Every year, 1.5 million women attempt to take their own lives, and a further 150,000 succeed in doing so.

The problem is worse in rural areas, where the suicide rate is three times higher than in the cities.

Xu Rong, head of the Suicide Prevention Project at the Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women, says one of the reasons is the ready availability of poisons in agricultural areas.

"It's all too easy to get hold of pesticides," she says. "Some women commit suicide impulsively. A husband and wife may have a bitter fight. When it's over, the woman just grabs some poison and drinks it."

'Business deals'

Suicide attempts may often be impulsive, but they are the result of burdens that weigh heavily on the shoulders of rural women.

Marriage is a big issue where traditional attitudes still prevail.

Many marriages are arranged and operate like business deals in which the groom's parents "buy" the bride, and she becomes part of their family.

Women will face an even more terrible future in 20 years time
Xie Lihua, magazine editor

Xu Rong believes this leads to emotional problems for young wives who leave their own family and friends to enter an alien environment.

"They have their father-in-law to deal with, their mother-in-law, various uncles, sisters-in-law and so on. She's got to gain everyone's acceptance. When there are conflicts, she's the weakest."

Particularly in arranged marriages, where the husband may sense his wife is unwilling to be with him, resentment can build up, leading to arguments and violence.

Xu Rong estimates that 70-80% of suicides are the direct result of conflicts between husbands and wives.

No way out

Xie Lihua, editor of China's foremost women's magazine, agrees that traditional values are a problem.

"If a woman goes to live with her husband's family and they treat her well, or if she's found someone who loves and respects her, she'll be all right. If not, things will be very difficult for her.

A woman carrying two buckets along a road in Shandong (Photo: Jonathan Lewis)
In rural areas where social security is weak, sons are preferred to daughters

"This is because there's a saying among men that goes: 'marrying a woman is like buying a horse: I can ride you and beat you whenever I like'."

For most women there is no easy way out of an unhappy marriage.

Divorce would mean leaving behind the financial security of the family, casting them into an uncertain future.

According to Xu Rong, some women attempt suicide as a way of asking for better treatment from their husbands.

Other studies agree that many of the women who attempt suicide each year are attempting to gain some dignity - to bring home to others their sense of anger and frustration.

The government realises the extent of the problem.

For many years, marriage laws have made arranged marriage and bride-buying illegal. However, traditional attitudes are hard to change.

Bleak prospects

Besides traditional attitudes, modern trends also seem set to place China's women under increasing pressure.

In rural areas where social security is weak, sons are preferred to daughters, as only sons will stay in the village to look after elderly parents. When daughters marry, they must move to their husband's family home.

Combine this with strict birth control policies, and the result is that many female foetuses are aborted.

For every one hundred baby girls born in China, 117 boys are born, according to the official figures.

By 2020, China could be short of around 40 million women, leaving many young men unable to find wives. Xie Lihua is worried about the consequences of this imbalance.

"Women will face an even more terrible future in 20 years time. Abduction and trafficking of women will increase. So will prostitution, as well as sexual violence against women and rape. I think this problem really must be solved from the ground up"

A helping hand

Trainee hairdressers at a centre near Beijing (Photo: Jonathan Lewis)
Women are gaining confidence and ambition from the training centres

Xu Rong's organisation attempts to prevent suicides by providing women with village-based support groups where they can discuss their feelings, and receive information on mental health.

Although these groups are limited to only a few villages they have been a success, and Xu Rong hopes to expand the project nationwide.

Other successes include a school outside Beijing where young rural women are taught the skills to build lives for themselves.

There are vocational courses on cooking, hairdressing and computing, as well as classes on marriage laws, suicide prevention and gender awareness.

It has an annual intake of around 600 young women.

Since opening in 1998, 4,000 trainees have passed through its doors, typically going on to work as restaurant cashiers or factory clerks.

City living

These projects are small, but other forces are also at work which are determining the future for China's women.

Young girls walking down a street in Beijing
City life allows girls to take control of their lives and have a career

In the manufacturing hubs of the south-east coastal provinces, up to 70% of the millions of migrant workers are women, mostly in their teens and 20s.

Although many will return to the countryside to marry, the experience of being away from home can be life-changing.

The move to the city is not without risk. Many young women have been sexually abused by their bosses, and working conditions are often abysmal.

But there are advantages.

Here, relationships are formed away from the prying eyes of parents and matchmakers, and young women experience a wider world far removed from the farms where they grew up.

Perhaps most importantly, young women away from home - whether in the factories or at the training school in Beijing - are gaining in confidence.

They are discovering their own individual worth and their own potential.

As one trainee says: "Before I came here my mum told me it was better to marry well than study well.

"But after coming here I didn't think my aim should be to get myself a good husband. I'd do better fighting for a career of my own."

China: Women of the Country was broadcast on Tuesday, 20 June, 2006 at 2100 BST on BBC Two.

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