The secret sorrows of China's sexual revolution: Women under pressure at home and work now have a telephone helpline, writes Teresa Poole in Peking

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The Independent Online
NOT LONG after the receiver is replaced, the telephone rings again. It is Wednesday afternoon, so the day's specialist topic at China's first women's telephone hotline is maternity and child health but, as usual, half the calls are about marriage and romance. One married woman telephones to discuss whether she should continue her affair with a married teacher. Another says that she tried to help a friend with marriage problems, but has been accused of starting an affair with the husband. The next wants to know the best type of abortion. Then a man rings, asking how he can know if his wife is pregnant.

It is a snapshot of the concerns of China's women as they adjust to the changing mores that go with a decade of economic reform. 'Pour out your secret sorrows, we'll do our best for you', is the promise of the hotline. More and more it is the sorrow of marital strife, divorce, sexual ignorance and job worries.

Dr Ding Hui, vice-president of Peking's Obstetrics Hospital, has been taking the calls. She advises the first woman to stop the relationship and to stay with her husband, but adds that if she no longer loves her husband, she must decide for herself what to do. Divorce is now increasingly common in China, particularly in the cities.

The second woman is told to avoid contact with her friend's husband that could be considered 'suspicious'. Much of the time the doctor offers basic health and physiological information. 'In China, sex education is lacking,' she says; the man who called about the mysteries of pregnancy, for instance, was a high school graduate.

Operating out of rented rooms in a secondary school in Peking, the hotline has just celebrated its first year. An evening service could not cope with demand, so the single telephone line now operates in the afternoon, offering specialist counsellors in law, emotional problems, maternity and children's health, sex and human relations. The shoe- string operation relies on financial backing from the Global Women's Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

The founder, Wang Xing Juan, head of the Women's Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Management Science, said they had received about 4,000 calls, two- thirds from women under 30. 'In the present society, women are under more and more pressure, there is more competition, and it is difficult for them to adapt,' she said.

This has meant a big increase in divorces; last year some 850,000 couples divorced in China. On the work front, women are more likely than men to lose their jobs as the traditional 'iron rice bowl' work practices are abandoned.

Economic reform, says Ms Wang, has made marriages more fragile. Higher salaries mean poorer couples no longer have to stay together simply because it is the only way to survive financially, but socially, divorced women in China still have a difficult time, even if divorce does now offer an escape from intolerable marriages. 'If their husbands want to divorce, the women fear they will lose face in front of colleagues or friends,' says Ms Wang.

On the telephone, wives 'pour out their worry about the lack of mutual understanding between husband and wife' and long to improve the quality of their marriage. As China has opened up, women now 'make their own claims for a sexual life', said the hotline's review of its first year. But, it added: 'Those young women who 'lost chastity' feel regretful, fearful and guilty. All these things indicate that although great changes have taken place in China since the ten years of modernisation, the influence of traditional values is still quite powerful.'

China's new generation of successful professional women are finding themselves caught between tradition and opportunity. Ms Wang said: 'The husband may have some other love affairs outside the marriage, because the husband thinks they are not capable of being a wife. Chinese men do not like to have a very successful wife. They just hope their wives are beautiful, young and very obedient. There is a phenomenon now, they have a lover outside the marriage, but keep their wife at the same time. Many husbands demand that their wife accepts this.' Younger women telephone because they do not know whether they should live with their boyfriends, a decision they would not have had to make in the past.

Women are the first to suffer when retrenchment occurs. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions says 60 per cent of all workers removed from jobs were women. Younger graduates complain that it is far harder for women to get well- paid, interesting jobs. 'Companies would rather hire men,' said one recent male graduate who had turned down his best job opportunity to live in Peking where his similarly- qualified girlfriend finally managed to get a reasonable job. 'There is a law for the protection of women's (employment) rights,' said Ms Wang. 'But the law cannot stop this from happening.'

(Photograph omitted)