July 1, 1998

SHANGHAI, China -- "Money is easy to give to rich people," explains Xie Lihua, as she describes why she makes small loans to poor Chinese women. "Money is very difficult to give to poor people."

Now in her 40s, Xie, who as a teenager was a fervent member of the Red Guard, has turned her revolutionary zeal to helping China's poor women. When banks refused to offer microcredit, Xie raised a pool of money to make the loans herself. She has a simple explanation for her devotion to this project: "If I give an apple, you will eat it once. If a seed, you can grow your own tree."

Xie's microcredit program helped one disabled woman, whose husband had always viewed her as a burden, to start up her own bean-curd shop. Now, she contributes to the family income and has gained the respect of her husband and her village. Another family bought hogs for resale on the condition that they share their knowledge with other families. Now, everyone in their village is a successful pig farmer.

I met Xie at a forum of Chinese women's leaders in Beijing. Never have I met advocates more excited about the achievements of their countrywomen or the hard work that remains to be done to ensure women's basic human rights. For example, although the Chinese economy has been growing 10 percent each year, the government's closing of inefficient and money-losing state enterprises often affects women first. They lose their jobs and their benefits and often have to be retrained for jobs in a more competitive economy.

I visited a job-retraining center in Shanghai where I watched women learning trades such as tailoring and flower arranging. This center is also the site of China's first women's hot line, where volunteers field questions ranging from how to find a job to how to control unruly children.

The very fact that Chinese women feel free to make such calls is a sign of progress. But the progress has been uneven, and although many are enjoying economic success and freedom unimaginable just a few years ago, others -- especially uneducated women -- have not seen their lives improve.

Three years ago, I was privileged to travel to Beijing with the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. There, representatives of 189 countries -- women of different colors, different cultures and different faiths -- came together to discuss their common concerns and commit themselves to common goals.

This week, I have met many extraordinary women who are working together to achieve these goals, especially in the areas of economic opportunity, education and legal rights.

Education remains a key challenge. I heard the story of one woman who sold her family's only donkey to pay for her son's university tuition. When her husband complained, the woman argued, "If we sell this donkey, we can buy another. If our son loses the opportunity for an education, he will never get it back."

Illiteracy is one of the most dogged problems facing rural Chinese women. Many cannot even write their names, making it nearly impossible to inform them of economic opportunities, basic health facts or their rights under the law.

Xie Lihua publishes a magazine called "Rural Women Knowing All." Designed to reach even those who can't read, the magazine uses pictures to teach women about jobs, rights and other critical issues. For those who can read, I was interested to learn that the best-selling health book "Our Bodies, Ourselves" -- relied on by American women for nearly 30 years -- has now been translated into Chinese.

Many Americans would be surprised to realize the extent to which women's rights have been written into Chinese law and to hear about the work of the Center for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services at Beijing University. There, as in so many U.S. law clinics, professors and students handle cases ranging from family law to employment discrimination. Unfortunately, although the law itself offers broad protections, women still face many hurdles.

One of the center's clients told me of her efforts to divorce her abusive husband. Although the court granted her divorce, Chinese housing restrictions prevented her and her daughter from moving out of her husband's house. In another case, several women sued their factory for back wages. They won, but several years later, they've yet to receive payment.

The Chinese have an expression that has been repeated to me by several women this week: Women hold up half the sky. As Xie Lihua and the other women I met here know so well, women can't hold up their half of the sky if they can't read or write or if they are denied loans or basic legal rights and services. Women can only hold up their half of the sky if their feet are firmly planted on the soil of freedom and equal justice.