Applied Psychology OPUS

Investing in Chinese Women: A poverty alleviation empowerment model

Nina Schneider

For the rural female villager, China has become an impoverishing place to live. In the eyes of Western media, China is a mighty, developed “dragon economy”. However, per-capita indicators have led the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to deem it a “developing” nation with a sub-standard quality-of-life (OECD, 2008). This categorization is especially true of in-land agricultural provinces (e.g., Shanxi, Hunan, Anhui). Within these provinces, the poorest and hardest-hit are the female villagers. To be female in 21st century China is challenging. Men in the Chinese culture are much more privileged, both financially and socially, whereas women are continuously sent both implicit and explicit messages to remain docile. For example, only male family members receive a share of inherited family property (Murphy, 2006). In contrast, society values the domestic and agricultural work of female offspring over their education, which results in higher rates of illiteracy among women (Luo, 2009). As a result of these social norms, China’s One-Child Policy has led to an increased rate of abortions of female fetuses (Chang, 2008) and higher levels of suicidality among females (Farley, 1998). It is clear that the feminine voice in rural, provincial economics and policy is openly oppressed, a clear departure from western ideals in which women are represented in most areas of industry.

There is a pervasive cultural notion of filial piety in which women, being more maternal and empathetic, are expected to take care of her family’s emotional and physical needs, while also contributing to her community’s culture. There are severe social repercussions if a woman chooses to behave in ways that self-serve and/or benefit the immediate family. She and her family members will likely be ostracized and denied community capital such as playmates for the child, employment opportunities for the adults, and especially non-specific forms of capital such as connections, relationships, and friendships. It is in her benefit to contribute in a tangible manner to support her village first and then her family, friends, and finally, herself.

It is paradoxical that women are silenced in Chinese culture, but at the same time, they are the primary financial supporters of elderly individuals and rural villages due to the onslaught of men joining the rural-to-urban migration movement (Chang, 2008; Fan, 2006; Luo, 2009). Faced with little financial prospects and earning potential in their home villages, Chinese men migrate into urban cities with the goal of securing gainful employment which would allow them to remit earnings back home, in theory. While there is significant research indicating that Chinese women tend to either save or reinvest earnings into the family in forms such as education, nutrition and skill-set development, whereas men tend to indulge in nihilistic pleasures such as liquor, gambling, and purchase of sexual services, in essence “squandering away their salaries” (Fan, 2006; Loftstrom, 2010). In other words, as women become more financially empowered, they reinvest income into their own family resulting in a positive cycle away from poverty. These findings are congruent with policy research indicating that women’s participation in employment, politics, and social and public policy has significantly inspired sustainable economic development (OECD, 2008) and poverty alleviation (Rashid & Cyprian, 2011). Thus, gender equality may be a means toward achieving lower poverty rates (Dannecker & Sieveking, 2009; Morrison, Raju & Sinha, 2008). Women are the most oppressed figures in Chinese society. There is a glass ceiling, preventing them from succeeding past a certain level. At the same time, for the advantage of the country and of rural communities, it is necessary for women to achieve gender equality. As such, this literature review proposes a three-part intervention model (graduating in scope: psychological, social, and financial) aimed at empowering rural Chinese women to revitalize rural economies, establishing a standard of living that can have widespread implications for societal development, permanently lifting other families out of poverty. Zhang, Yong and Hulme (2002) call for a bottom-up approach, explaining that poverty alleviation must begin with changing the individual woman’s mentality, and then that of the community and further on, that of the nation. This model assumes that women are trained in their home villages, travel to the city for skill-set and business training, and return home after three years to encourage entrepreneurship. Though the target population is quite specific, the significance of the proposed intervention model is substantial. If successful, it will encourage dormant or low-activity economies through the organizing of confident, young rural Chinese women who have internalized a positive sense of self-worth and resilience, and are highly suitable for various occupations as evidenced by their newly acquired skill sets. The hope is that by targeting one small village -  Changsha city of Hunan province - the effects of this case study will spread, systematically affecting each in-land rural village with similar stagnancy. Rural-to-urban migration flows have been known to (unnecessarily) deplete villages of valuable financial resources (namely, the males of the village). The women, in fact, are much more capable of supporting their communities and families than traditional Chinese society allows.

Improving the Chinese Woman’s Psyche

The psychological component of the current intervention model stems from Dannecker’s (2009) and Rashid & Cyprian’s (2011) perspective that poverty alleviation is impossible without a psychological change in the mindset of the target population. In this case, the rural Chinese women must understand that they themselves are a crucial tool in alleviating their own impoverished situation. The intervention model proposes a two-step program: reducing internalized oppression and launching gender-awareness training for both men and women. Firstly, it is important for women to attain an adequate level of self-confidence and efficacy, as this confidence will better equip them emotionally to push against the glass ceiling. Such qualities are characteristic of singleton daughters, a term coined by Fong (2002) to describe rural female only-children in the One-Child Policy era. They enjoy a lack of competition for familial resources (e.g., education, intellectual stimulation, attention) compared to female offspring with male siblings. As a result, they are assertive in temperament, outspoken about their needs, and go on to achieve higher levels of education and higher-skilled employment.

     In order to understand the need for rural Chinese women to achieve self-confidence, it is important to realize their paralyzing historical context. The Chinese woman’s present-day subordinate position was inspired and is perpetuated by Confucian principles and cultural expectations that the woman should be an extension of the man, whenever appropriate. She “should not stand, separate from the man she is upholding” (Koo, 1985). The woman, having been saturated with explicit and implicit messages to remain obedient, quiet and supportive, eventually develops an “internalized oppression,” a term coined by Pyke and Johnson (2003) to explain how the dominant culture imposes an inferior criterion for behavior and identification for the secondary culture. As the Chinese woman is continuously informed of her lack of self-worth, she begins to assume this stance as her own.

     Aronson and McGlone (2009) have branded the effect of internalized oppression as “stereotype threat,” explaining that when a target population is made aware of a negative stereotype against them, the ensuing anxiety and frustrations impair performance at a specified task. Rural Chinese women experience a non-academic form of stereotype threat. Their passive and obedient Chinese social identity is made salient to them, effective to the extent that they cannot perform outside of the stereotype’s “guidelines.” Fortunately, there are threat-reducing interventions, the most effective being exposure to a role-model that visibly counters the negative stereotype (Aronson & McGlone, 2009). This intervention model proposes a program that exposes rural Chinese women to successful women who are financially sustainable, self-confident, and most importantly, a critical disconfirmation of the passive stereotype that plagues Chinese women.

     The second step of the psychological component of the proposed intervention is gender-awareness training for both men and women. This idea is informed by Yang’s (2012) finding that attempts at financially empowering women fail if there is not a simultaneous gender-awareness training informing the community of the feminine potential and ability to control finances. It is meant to reinforce the rural woman’s self-confidence by confronting her primary threat: men and traditional family structures. Rashid and Cyprian (2011) have found that parents are reluctant to educate their daughters, a sentiment echoed in the Farley’s (1998) research with one participant remarking, “Raising a daughter only to marry her off to another family [is] like fattening a hog for someone else’s banquet.” By reforming the attitudes of traditional Chinese family structures, the woman can achieve greater familial standing and confidence. There has been a significant lack of research regarding how such training ensues, but the goal is clear: to educate both men and families, allowing them to appreciate the benefits associated with supporting and empowering the rural Chinese woman.

Capacity Building and Resilience Training

     Rural Chinese women are typically low-skilled and low-paid workers. Capacity building, also known as skill-set development, involves teaching and training the women in order to add new skills to their existing repertoire. Capacity building can embolden women with the skills necessary to financially sustain themselves, their families and their communities. Though this is a relatively simple stage, it is critical as it builds self-efficacy and expands confidence in their chosen field. This intervention model suggests the addition of Mandarin (read: Putonghua) Chinese and Cantonese language capabilities as well as public speaking to their skill set.

     Putonghua is the lingua franca across the country and rural migrant villagers are mostly fluent in the language though it has been observed that regional dialects are preferable. Miao and Li (2006) found that in formal situations (e.g., work, hospitals), Putonghua spoken without an accent is viewed most favorably and with more authority/power, as compared to the Cantonese “conditions”. However, if the woman decides to relocate to the southeastern coastal region, especially to the Guangdong province, learning Cantonese can increase her employment attractiveness. For a rural Chinese woman, there are two options in terms of mobility. She can choose to remain in the rural village and attempt to attract employment opportunities or, she can choose to relocate to a coastal, urban city for work. This intervention model assumes that the woman will choose the second option, bringing her newly acquired skills home and sparking micro-economies in her home community by training villagers to develop their rural livelihoods, and encouraging entrepreneurship.

     Chang (2008) informally interviewed several Shenzhen and Dongguan young female migrant workers over the course of three years. Her qualitative data suggested that however prepared the migrant women felt they were, there was still a degree of acculturative stress and separation anxiety from familiar village life. As the author remarked:

I came to like Dongguan, which seemed a perverse expression of China at its most extreme. Materialism, environmental ruin, corruption, traffic, pollution, noise, prostitution, bad driving, short-term thinking, stress, surviving, and chaos: If you could make it here, you’d make it anywhere.(p. 27)

Because of the transient life the rural Chinese women must live as migrants, they must be trained in resilience theory. Resilience is the “normative expression of human capacity to cope and thrive after the most extreme life events” (Mancini & Bonanno, 2006). In other words, resilience can help the individual reduce the chances of mental/emotional degeneration (break-down) and burnout. Resilience also can mitigate existing depressive symptoms (Wingo et al., 2010), suggesting that it is effective as a psychological preventative measure and as a therapeutic tool. Mancini and Bonanno (2006) realized that coping can lead to the development of resilience and that there are two types of coping techniques: flexible adaptation and pragmatic coping. Flexible adaption is a social by-product of the environment, personal affect and disposition. Hopefully, by teaching the rural Chinese women methods to counter threats to their identity, they will have developed the behavioral elasticity, characteristic of flexible adaptation. Pragmatic coping is similar to cognitive-behavioral therapy in that it suggests goal-oriented, systematic procedures to address maladaptive habits and negative, dysfunctional emotions/cognitive processes.

Micro-Credit and Entrepreneurship

     The final stage of the intervention model is heavily centered on Polak’s (2009) ideology that capitalism can allow individuals to escape poverty permanently. He emphasizes that “to move out of poverty, poor people have to invest their own time and money.” In essence, this intervention model suggests that rural Chinese women create an economy for the items and services that they need. For example, if the community requires health services, the woman should petition in their village for low-cost medical services, especially for the uninsured. This is, perhaps, the most difficult stage of the intervention model because it asks the rural Chinese women to band together as one entity, simultaneously ignoring the communist/capitalist-sentiments of the Chinese government and create a local economy that meets their needs. It is also difficult because of the lack of specificity. It is difficult to specify the exact steps the rural Chinese women should take in order to encourage enterprise. The goal, however, is simple: to encourage sustainable economies using the fortes that they possess, acquired from a psychological change and migrating to the urban city. Polak (2005), in “The Big Potential of Small Farms,” explains that the addition of new technology and information can make a marginally-profitable infrastructure much more efficient. His research on small Zimbabwean farms revealed that by introducing low-cost treadle pumps, the farmers were able to more efficiently irrigate their small plot of land, yielding almost double the annual harvest. Given that the women come from communities in which the mainstay is agriculture, it would be a viable option for the rural Chinese women to introduce new ideas and infrastructure to activate the already existing small enterprises. The goal is not to compete with national brands, but rather to create the means for sustainable income through capitalism.

     Another method to encourage economy in the rural villages is entrepreneurship. Li, Gan and Hu (2011) collaborated with the Rural Credit Cooperative (RCC) to create a micro-credit program for eligible females from two Chinese rural inland villages in which 80% of households are financially disadvantaged. They found that when micro-credit loans were provided to women for sustainable entrepreneurial projects, they experienced spousal reverence and had greater familial standing. Additionally, there was a positive relationship between the level of economic and social empowerment experienced and the cumulative threshold. Rates of default among the participants was <10%, indicating that they were very good credit risks. If the women used these microcredit loans as well as their business acumen resulting from their migration to urban cities in entrepreneurial ventures, they could substantially increase the overall financial well-being of their community. OECD (2008) explains that entrepreneurship represents an increasingly viable option among rural women, as the time flexibility and ownership over capital can visibly empower a woman as her financial status increases.

    Historically, China has enjoyed above-average economic rates and consequently, a rich industry and quality-of-life for residents in coastal cities such as Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. However, as one ventures further inland towards cities such as Changsha, Chengdu, and Kunming, there is a sharp drop in the condition of housing, transportation, and education. The wealth circulates just beyond the grasp of rural in-land villagers, both figuratively and geographically. This three-step intervention model releases the untapped earning potential of rural female villagers by improving their human capital capabilities and harnessing them in the form of entrepreneurship. The goal is to revitalize rural economies via micro businesses headed by women. This has both a financial and psychological effect for the women. It empowers them to rely less on men in their community, as generational rural-to-urban migration flows will often attract men away from the villages into the cities. If successful, this intervention model will mold an independent, assertive Chinese woman who can successfully turn the tide on the financial situation of her community, reversing poverty and helping to support her family.


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