Raw Deal for Rural Left-behind Women


Psychological Burden


“In addition to the hard work of plowing fields and raising children, left-behind women must also bear the psychological pain of separation from their spouses. Some men come home once or twice a month if they work in nearby cities, but many can only be reunited with their family members at lunar New Year,” Cheng Fang, head of the Miliang Town Women’s Federation in Zhen’an County, Shangluo City, Shaanxi Province, told China Today.


Ren Lili and her husband Li Xue-qing were both born to poor families and got to know each other while working in Xi’an. After marrying two years ago, Ren Lili started life as a left-behind wife. Her responsibilities include taking care of her husband’s intellectually challenged brother, and his wife, who suffers from meningitis sequelae. She is now also the mother of twins. Her mother-in-law says of Ren that she is neat and diligent but introvert and soft-spoken, and disinclined to join in local social events.


Tang Chengfang is another left-behind wife. A short walk from Tang and her husband Li Heyuan’s house stands a village activity center where women of the village gather to chat, drink tea, or play mahjong when they are not plowing or taking care of their children. As Tang Chengfang is not a native villager she speaks a different dialect. She feels like a fish out of water outside of her home, even when other women in the village encourage her to play mahjong or just sit and chat with them. When invited to a wedding in the village she sends her eight-year-old daughter in her place. Puzzled at her reticence, villagers regard her as eccentric.


Zheng Xiuwei is yet another example. She gives a general impression of being economical and a good mother, often buying meat and fruit for her children. An extended period of being left alone with her children, however, has made her over-sensitive and convinced that people are bad-mouthing her. This belief has led to several spats with her fellow villagers.


Among women interviewed, 63.2 percent admitted that an overwhelming feeling of loneliness made it hard for them to carry the burden of family responsibilities. One left-behind woman explained how life as a migrant worker in the city is preferable to that alone in the rural home. “Staying at home alone means living in a remote place with people with whom you have nothing in common. Even though working in the city is hard and tiring, living there at least means you can be with your spouse and enjoy leisure pastimes after work. There is time to explore, surf online, and try new dishes, whereas there is no end to work amid rural life.” Living in one’s hometown or a familiar environment with relatives is bearable. Living in their husband’s village, as Tang Chengfang and other married women have done according to the patrilocal system, means adjusting to a new environment where the dialect, food, and living customs are different, and where there are no close friends with whom to share their thoughts, hopes and fears.


Extended periods of separation from their husbands and the consequent absence of a conjugal relationship have led to edginess in 69.8 percent of the women interviewed, anxiety in 50.6 percent and depression in 39.0 percent. This estrangement, along with the burden of taking care of children, ailing seniors as well as doing farm labor, amounts to an immense physical and psychological burden.


Care and Concern


Resolving this situation is a main concern of local governments, deputies to people’s congresses and psychologists. Reforms to the residence registration system that started in 2010 are focused on the working and living problems of rural migrant workers. Their aim is to give rural residents working and living in cities status equal to that of urban citizens, so entitling them to employment, schooling, public health, housing and social security and to live as a family unit. Local governments across the country have started research and trials in this respect. A student society in Gansu Agricultural University recently launched a questionnaire survey to establish contact with rural households and give help where needed. Project head He Jinji explained, “What we have done is to help these families alleviate their feelings of loneliness and futility. We also hope to get more people involved in resolving this social issue.”


Senior psychological consultant Zhu Meiyun observes that China’s rapid urbanization in recent years has drawn growing numbers of rural workers to work in the cities, leading to extended periods of marital estrangement. The consequent impact on rural economy, social relations and the family members left behind in their hometowns demands attention and action.

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