2015: Public Welfare and Gender

Editor’s Note:

This is an edited and abbreviated version of an article from the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s annual “Blue Book of Philanthropy” of 2015. The article argues that gender issues came to the forefront within Chinese civil society following the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Around 2008, when many international NGOs started leaving China, the concept of gender became marginalized, but in 2015 it made a comeback, following an increase in feminist activism coinciding with the 20th Anniversary of the Beijing conference.


The concept of gender became widespread among Chinese social organizations following the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, drawing on support from cooperation programs for poverty alleviation in the field of international development. Around 2008, as many international organizations were leaving China, causing changes in the available resources for Chinese NGOs, gender became a marginalized issue. In 2015, during the commemorations for the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, feminists involved in the field of charity held up slogans like “Restart from Beijing,” “Let’s talk about Gender again,” “Gender concerns make charity more effective,” once again introducing the topics of gender and gender equality into the field of Chinese philanthropy and public welfare.

Looking back on the Chinese nonprofit community in 2015, there is one phenomenon in particular that differentiates it from previous years, and that is the re-emergence of the topic of gender equality—starting at the beginning of the year with the March 7 incident, followed by discussions on China’s law against domestic violence, demonstrations surrounding the anniversary of the World Conference on Women in September, and the emergence of issues such as “female empowerment,” “gender,” and “gender equality” on all kinds of traditional media and new social media platforms. Gender equality repeatedly turned into the main topic of discussion in seminars and forums, and even some large-scale symposiums of the NGO community have started to focus on the topic of gender equality. All of these developments following the 1995 World Conference on Women indicate that the concept of “gender” is experiencing a second awakening in Chinese philanthropic circles.


The First Awakening: The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing


In September of 1995, the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. This was the largest international conference that the Chinese government had agreed to undertake since its founding. Over 30,000 women from all around the world gathered in Huairou, expressing their desire and resolution for “Action for Equality, Development, and Peace” in many different ways. 189 members of the UN adopted the “Beijing Declaration” and the “Platform for Action,” which form strategic objectives and a policy framework for the promotion of gender equality and protection of women’s rights. This was history’s most successful World Conference on Women; the mission and spirit that it proclaimed to the world created major and positive change, and its impact is still apparent today.

The Spread and Dissemination of the Idea of Gender in China

One of the effects the World Conference on Women had on Chinese NGOs was the spread and dissemination of the idea of gender.

Gender, as an academic concept, holds that in addition to the fundamental biological differences between men and women, there exist social differences and relationships as well. The concept of gender is described by sociologists as the group characteristics, roles, activities, and responsibilities of men and women that are expressed within a specific society.[2] In sociology, when it comes to gender, differences in class, ethnicity and geographic location are all used as important tools for analyzing differences between groups of people.

In recent years, any mention of gender in public welfare circles is often immediately associated with feminism, but this is actually a false connection. There are two main avenues by which gender has been disseminated in China.

The first one is women’s studies. In the middle of the 1980s, with the new awakening movement in intellectual circles and the appearance of a large number of women’s issues in China as the country entered into a new era of reform and opening, the field of women’s studies in China was gradually gaining ground. Around the early 1990s, the concept of gender was translated and introduced into China as an important theoretical school of Western thought in women’s studies, and it became used in academic circles as an influential analytical model for explaining gender discrimination. However, at the time, the field of women’s studies was comprised of a very small number of people, and their potential for influence was not large.

The second avenue is international development aid. In the 1980s, China’s reform and opening up opened the door into the country, and the large population and poverty rate attracted the attention of international aid organizations such as the United Nations. After many of these types of bilateral and multilateral aid organizations entered China, a wide variety of poverty alleviation development programs were started in the northwest and southwest, where impoverished populations were highly concentrated. The concept of gender was widely disseminated in China through the development of these international programs.


The Current Situation: the Marginalization of Gender in the Nonprofit Sector

1. The Current Situation

Despite the lack of supporting research and data, there is no question that in recent years the topic of gender has been marginalized within the nonprofit sector:

(1) The issues of women’s development and gender equality have faded from the vision of the sector as a whole, reduced now to being issues for women’s organizations alone. This can be seen from three facts.

First of all, there is the amount of organizational development. One of the important effects that the Fourth World Conference on Women had on the Chinese nonprofit sector was the legalization of NGOs in China, as well as the expedited support and promotion of the growth and expansion of women’s NGOs. In 2008, during the One Foundation’s first annual selection of the “Model Project,” 3 of the 7 organizations selected were feminist organizations, which demonstrates the maturity and level of influence of feminist organizations at the time.[5] 2008 has been called “China’s first year of philanthropy.” The earthquake in Wenchuan that year gave birth to many nongovernmental organizations as well as a fervour for forming associations. This caused a huge gush of nonprofit organizations to spring up. Unfortunately, within this huge wave of new organizations, the number dealing with women and gender was very limited, making the overall proportion of feminist organizations in the industry relatively small.

Secondly, it can be seen from program performance. The number of programs directly related to gender equality and women’s empowerment is getting smaller and smaller. Community service programs that maintain a degree of sensitivity to gender are very difficult to find. Even when there is a project proposal related to this topic, the proposal often fails early on due to a lack of talent within the organization. This can be glimpsed at from the all the colourful awards and honours awarded within the sector.

(2) Many NGOs do not understand gender. In August 2015, China’s first Women’s Charity Summit Preparatory group commissioned China Development Brief with an investigation into the current status of gender in society. They collected questionnaires from 37 organizations in nine provinces and municipalities in China. Out of these, there were 22 local organizations, five international NGOs, five GONGOs, and five private foundations. From this survey, we can see the following things:

(2.1) At the strategic level, organizations rarely consider gender equality. Excluding women’s organizations that focus primarily on promoting gender equality, it is very rare for an organization to have gender equality written directly into its policies or organizational principles. Of the 37 organizations that participated in the survey, there were only 12 that had any content related to gender equality in their strategy. This accounts for 32% of the total. There were 17 organizations that had not even considered gender, accounting for 46% of the total.

(2.2) The leaders of the organizations lack an understanding of gender and gender equality. Out of the leaders of the 37 organizations in the survey,  2 “had no understanding of gender in society”, and 11 “knew a little bit”. Taken together these two categories accounted for 35% of the participants.

(2.3) The vast majority of employees in the nonprofit sector lack training on gender. Despite the lack of rigorous research, no one familiar with the nonprofit field will deny this fact. Seventy percent of the organizations in this survey had not undertaken any gender training, and 54% of the organizations had not considered gender factors when hiring employees. [8] Due to a lack of training, the vast majority of employees in the industry do not have any awareness of gender issues, and many organizations lack staff that utilize a perspective of gender understanding. This is causing a decrease in sensitivity to gender concerns in community service-related programs, resulting in a decrease in the effectiveness of implemented programs. Moreover, some young people in the nonprofit community mistakenly believe that gender equality is the same as feminism or refuse to even acknowledge it.

From the above analysis we can see that the marginalization of gender issues in the nonprofit world has already become a reality. The vast majority of staff and organizations lack a gender perspective, and this has become a shortcoming that is constricting the healthy development of China’s nonprofit sector.


2. The Causes

(1) The withdrawal of international development organizations. In recent years, China’s economy and economic strength has been developing rapidly, and many foreign aid organizations have been withdrawing from China in quick succession. This has caused a large reduction in the amount of resources available for promoting gender issues. After 2008, this type of training has seen a sharp fall, and many in the new, younger generation in nonprofit have no idea what gender even is. This is especially true for newly established foundations, which are especially unfamiliar with it.

“Although our organization does do women’s rights, I don’t think we really fall under the categorization of public welfare anymore. The monopoly over the right to speak on diversification and inclusivity in the nonprofit sector, the hegemony of the male elite and their indifference towards gender issues is no different than how it is other sectors; in some cases, it is more serious here. When the international organizations—which understood our thinking—left, our entire discipline has become increasingly marginalized and harder and harder to be a part of. Many of our colleagues have not yet become aware of this, but many have adjusted their organizational development strategy as a direct result of the availability of resources.” [9]

(2)  Fundamental shifts in the nonprofit sector. With the rise of domestic public and private foundations, the East is gradually replacing the West and becoming the driving force of the Chinese philanthropic sector. But these shifts are causing fault lines to appear; experience and tradition are not linking up. These fundamental shifts are also changing the basic topics of discussion in the nonprofit sector. In the past, we spoke of participatory development, advocacy and empowerment. Today we talk about service models, outreach, and influence. Young, domestic foundations are leading these discussions, revealing the shortsightedness and immaturity of the industry.

“There is almost no financial support from domestic sources that focuses specifically on gender and women’s issues. The vast majority of foundations do not pay much attention to a program’s mission or principles. Instead, the fashionable thing to do now is focus on trainings for “fundraising”, “outreach”, “transparency”, “public credibility”, and “innovation”. In actuality, this has nothing to do with the issues we deal with on a basic, community level; there is a disconnect with these things…… Furthermore, the bigwigs monopolizing the dialogue who are emphasizing these very noble-sounding words are basically all men. There is no gender perspective. This makes finding resources and doing our work that much harder.” [10]

(3) The weakening influence of women’s organizations in the industry. Many of the veteran feminist organizations founded in the last century are very internally focused, contained, and maintained by the same network of people. This internal consistency juxtaposed with the rapid, external changes has caused their influence in the industry to weaken. In recent years, the rising new generation of feminists has been making use of the internet, but because of their aggressive behavior, social organizations have often misunderstood feminists, and have kept away from them. In addition to this, there are some foreign concepts from past trainings that have not been absorbed well; consequently, there have been some misunderstandings of gender, in some cases even to the point of developing a negative stigma. Some equate the concept of gender with women and feminism, and they think that feminism is a radical social movement that targets men. There needs to be a clear division between gender and feminism.



The Second Awakening: Making Public Welfare More Sensitive to Gender Issues


For those feminists who experienced the World Conference on Women, the current state of gender in the nonprofit world is heartbreaking. In 2015, an opportunity finally came with the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Organizations hosted all kinds of roundtables, research symposiums, and written reflections that were published in all types of media, particularly making use of opportunities in the new media to promote the spirit of the World Conference on Women and to advocate for a “Restart of Beijing.” [11]

This reawakening movement hosted an event in September called “Beijing +20”, the high point of which was the Chinese Nonprofit Summit on Women. The summit’s main topic of discussion was “how to give NGOs a gender perspective,” which was a clear battle cry directed towards the Chinese nonprofit sector. The summit was organized by a group of women activist leaders in the public welfare sector: Gao Xiaoxian, Yang Tuan, Guo Hong, Xie Lihua, Huang Yi, Chen Yimei, Zheng Bing, Liu Xiaogang, a group which includes some members of the older generation of feminists. There were also theorists active in public welfare areas other than women’s rights, as well as some leaders of foundations. All of the 60 participants at the summit were women leaders of social organizations that are influential in the public welfare sector. Everyone gathered in Xi’an to carry on the spirit of the Beijing World Conference on Women, and discuss issues brought up during the conference. Discussions focused on how to promote a gender perspective in public welfare, demonstrating the commitment, dedication, and responsibility of these women towards promoting gender equality.

After a one-day seminar, the “Gender Perspective in Public Welfare” consensus was adopted, focusing on the main ideas this wave of reawakening hopes to convey:

1. Gender equality and public welfare have the same goals. Modern philanthropy—whether it be simple charitable giving or giving to programs for “finding solutions to problems of socially vulnerable groups”— already holds the sustainable development of “social justice”, “justice”, and “equality” as the core values and objectives of the nonprofit sector. Women’s empowerment and gender equality “is the only way to create sustainable development and a fair, developed society. It is mankind’s prerequisite for achieving political, social, economic, cultural, and environmental safety.” [12] Philanthropy shares the same goals and objectives with gender equality, and it has already become the most important non-governmental force promoting gender equality.

2. Gender equality makes nonprofits more effective. This can be understood through two perspectives on the social system of gender constructed by history and culture. Even today, it still influences people’s thoughts and behaviors, causing a division of labor and power relationship. It exists in all sectors of society and groups of people that nonprofits serve; women outnumber men in socially vulnerable groups, and they live in situations that are even more vulnerable. This is true, for example, for the poor and lowly educated groups, for female household caretakers without a salary, and for medical services, technology, or the ability to use the Internet. If we do not see this power relationship and the resulting differences in behavior, it will cause us to overlook, ignore, and neglect service to people in need. On the other hand if we introduce gender analysis, when we address these differences we will be more sensitive, have a clearer view, and implement plans and programs that are more effective. We will provide services and take steps that are more targeted and have a better social impact. The nonprofit sector has been invigorated by a large number of female volunteers, professional staff and administrators. Giving them equal resources and equal opportunity would not only increase the number of people engaged in the nonprofit sector and the amount of charitable contributions, but more importantly, they would bring a gender perspective with them, which would make public welfare more compassionate, more humane, closer to the groups it serves, and more appealing.

3. The introduction of a gender perspective will help the professionalization of the nonprofit sector. The groups of people that nonprofits serve are differentiated by gender. If the differences between the two genders are not understood in regards to cognition, behavior, needs, and identified values, then social organizations have no business discussing things such as their effective intervention and high quality service. A gender perspective is an essential component in the professionalization of philanthropy. The participants in the summit made it clear that the process of mainstreaming gender is an indicator of maturation and growth.

4. When nonprofits do have a gender perspective, this will be reflected in their project management and institutional governance. There needs to be gender analysis in project design and within each stage of planning, not only to respond by providing solutions to the immediate needs of women, but more importantly, to focus on their strategic needs. Project activities need to have components that enhance women’s awareness and ability to participate in community development. Program implementation should pay attention to female participation. Program evaluation should include female empowerment, indicators of gender, and the representative participation of women. This should be done with respect to the realities of China today, and work manuals should be published for different sectors that have particular gender considerations in order to meet the diverse needs of the industry, for example, gender perspectives in rural community development, gender perspectives in emergency rescue and disaster management, gender-sensitive project management, social work and sharing technology.

All nonprofit organizations need a gender-friendly organizational model: one that has clear gender-equality advocacy, established professional staff positions dedicated to gender, specialized gender training provided for all staff, a promise that all projects will be gender-sensitive, and sensitivity to the sex ratio of people at the executive, management, and employee level, while increasing the proportion of women at the managerial level.

5. In order for nonprofits to have a gender perspective, governments, businesses, and foundations must work together to push this forward. This also requires the full participation of the people, and especially of the women that these communities and services aim to help. Governments, enterprises, and foundations hold the resources for public welfare; they have a leading influence on the issues nonprofits turn their attention to. The participants of the summit call on the government, foundations, and private enterprises to agree to push gender equality and gender issues into mainstream programming by investing more resources and emphasizing the need for feminist organizations to adapt to external changes. They can play a leading role in advocating and spreading the process of mainstreaming gender.

In 2015, there were two important international events that also added fuel to the flames. In August, the United Nations passed the “2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals”. In comparison to the Millennium Development Goals passed in 2000, the original 8 goals have increased to 17. Gender equality and female empowerment is still one of the goals, but the wording is much stronger than before– “promoting gender equality” has been changed to “achieving gender equality.” In September the Chinese government and the Women’s office of the UN jointly held the World Summit on Women. Chairman Xi Jinping spoke at this summit: “We have just passed the 2015 development plan. A gender perspective has already been incorporated into all areas of this development plan. Let us carry forward the spirit of the Beijing World Conference on Women, reaffirm our promise, and add energy to the promotion of gender equality and the comprehensive development of women.”

On behalf of the Chinese government and UN Women, 10 million US dollars were donated to support the implementation of the “Beijing Declaration”, the “Platform for Action”, and related programs in the 2015 development plan. After 20 years, this brought the attention of the government and the public back to the issues of gender and development. “Women’s empowerment,” “gender equality,” and a “gender perspective” are once again gaining attention. One difference between now and the 1990s is that China’s rapid economic development has turned it from a country that receives international aid to a country that gives international aid. Because of this, the nonprofit world is talking about potential international horizons, and it is starting to care about the issue of “soft power” that would come with China’s international monetary aid and giving, as well as the associated values of theories and models of development, or similarly, the “China experience” or the “China model” that has spilled over into the area of poverty development. [13] The experience of gender development in China after the World Conference on Women has become a topic followed closely by scholars and activists. [14]

This reawakening presents some clear differences with the first awakening: first of all the leading ideological force is no longer coming from international organizations, but rather from local feminist organizations, women’s rights workers, and female leaders in the nonprofit sector. These women include some from the older generation, but also many from the new generation born after 1980. In the absence of foreign financial support, these women have spontaneously acted within the areas and regions that they have access to, acting similarly but without coordination to hold various commemorative activities and discussion forums. Taken together, this has had an impact on the industry.

Secondly, there is a diversification of the methods and models. Rather than relying solely on programming and training, new media, social platforms, and preexisting forums can be and should be used more often.

Thirdly, flexibility is increasing at the strategic level. There are the bold, strong, fighting feminists, as well as the less public, moderate women advocates who work with the female leaders of nonprofit organizations, who have changed the image of the lone feminist fighting by herself. This change is also dependent on the use of different discourses and advocacy models depending on what the targeted audience is ready to accept, which can also be seen in the way the women’s summit was initiated and in the general consensus that came from the summit. This shift is also related to the diversification of the development of Chinese women’s organizations as well as the rethinking of gender training in women’s organizations over the past 20 years.

Fourthly, the process of localization has caused “gender equality” and the “gender perspective” to integrate better with other topics popular in the nonprofit sector: for example, the basic nature of philanthropy; the efficiency, professionalization, and sustainable development of social organizations, disaster management, targeted poverty relief, the “one belt and one road” strategy etc… This has had the added effect of making it easier for the industry to accept the line of advocacy that “a gender perspective makes public welfare more effective.”

The commemorative events for the 1995 World Conference on Women may have already passed, but the conversations about gender within the nonprofit industry are far from over. The effect of this reawakening will be lasting and continuous. The reawakening has brought about an accumulation of strength, and the rise of the new generation fills us with hope for the future.
[1] Gao Xiaoxian, Shaanxi Research Center on Theory of Marriage and Household, Founder of the Yunhui, Shaanxi Gender Development Training Center.
[2] Candida March, Ines Smith, Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay, translated by Gender Awareness Resources Group, “A Guide to Gender-Analysis Framework,” Social Sciences Publication, 2004, page 7.
[3] United Nations, “Report on the Fourth World Conference on Women,” (internal information), Article 202 on page 103, 1995, Beijing.
[4]Candida March, Ines Smith, Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay, translated by Gender Awareness Resources Group, “A Guide to Gender-Analysis Framework,” Social Sciences Publication, 2004, page 6.
[5] The three organizations are: the Beijing Rural Women Cultural Development Center, the Shaanxi Research Center on Theory of Marriage and Household, and the Liangshan Yi Minority Women and Children Development Service Center
[6]Yang, Jin: “The Current Situation and Challenges Regarding Gender in the Nonprofit Sector,” 8 September 2015, China Development Brief, Web. http://www.chinadevelopmentbrief,org.cn
[7]Yang, Jin: “The Current Situation and Challenges Regarding Gender in the Nonprofit Sector,” 8 September 2015, China Development Brief, Web. http://www.chinadevelopmentbrief,org.cn
[8] Same as 6
[9] Zhao, Hailing: “‘A Female Perspective: My Road to Philanthropy'” statements in interview,” West Women Network. http://www.westwomen.org
[10] Zhao, Hailing: “‘A Female Perspective: My Road to Philanthropy'” statements in interview,” speech from the China Women’s Philanthropy Summit, West Women Website, http://www.westwomen.org
[11] Feng, Yuan: “Inventory and Departure—Writings on the 20th Anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women,” China Development Brief, 5 March 2015 http://www.chinadevelopmentbrief,org.cn
[12] “Program of Action” adopted by the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women
[13]See statement from October 2015 “Sixth Forum on Innovation and Philanthropy in Western Communities” held in Lanzhou
[14] See Bu Wei’s “‘Beyond ‘Women and Media’ — A Review of the “Beijing Platform for Action,” China’s Experience and Evaluation of Beijing+20″, as well as a statement from Gao Xiaoxian and Song Shaopeng from 14-15 October 2015 at the “International and Chinese Women’s Forum” hosted in Beijing by the Song QingLing Foundation and the United Nations Development Program.

In Brief

This article from the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s annual Blue Book of Philanthropy describes how gender issues came back to the fore in China’s non-profit sector over 2015, after years of being consigned to the back burner.
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