In China there is a huge diversity of NGO types. This has come about due to processes within China’s reform period, varying streams of international development aid, and differences in the social and political environment. Compared to the populations served by poverty alleviation and education programs, groups such as those living with HIV, sex workers, migrants, and homosexuals are severely stigmatized and discriminated against. Therefore it is very difficult for these communities to receive support from Chinese society and the government. This particular NGO field could appropriately be called “marginalized”
Because of the need for rights protection and service provision, many organizations emerged in the late 1990s, but these were mainly led by men. After 2000, due to a lack of organizational response, the problems that some groups of marginalized women, such as female sex workers, women living with HIV, and lesbians, faced became more and more obvious. They could not receive the support of the Women’s Federation nor other women’s organizations. In order to overcome these difficulties, many of these marginalized women formed organizations based around these communities and used diverse working methods to protect their rights and raise public and governmental awareness of their situation.
Women’s HIV/AIDS organizations
Since the late 1990s, the continued support of international funds, as well as the longterm involvment and effort of prominent AIDS activists made HIV/AIDS one of the most influential fields for NGO work. However this field is dominated by services for MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), while organizations providing services to HIV-infected women are few and weak. According to a survey conducted by the National AIDS Resource Network in 2011, there were only 29 women AIDS organizations (and groups) in China. Most of these organizations have only a few part-time employees and some are exclusively composed of volunteers.
Xincai county’s Ximei Mutual Help Home is a good example of the typical grassroots women AIDS organization found in Henan. Founder Liu Ximei met feminist Ye Haiyan during the 2011 “Tian Xi Case” ((Editor’s Note: Tian Xi is a young man who was infected with HIV through blood transfusion as a child. He was arrested and jailed for a year in 2011)) which pushed her to take the path to help those living with HIV. The Ximei Mutual Help Home hopes it can offer some relief and compensation for the women of Xincai living with HIV, as well as help them find a doctor and provide a temporary place to rest and have a social life. However, as with similar groups, the Ximei Mutual Help Home faces obstacles on all fronts, including funding, office space, work details, and staff.
In many parts of Henan, many patients from rural areas go to the city to see a doctor, often saving money by not eating or drinking during their trip. In addition, because of the side-effects of bad medication, patients from rural areas are plagued with obvious visual markers (such as changes in body fat) and are therefore subjected to even more serious discrimination. Even though the Ximei Mutual Help Home only has three to five steady volunteers and staff and is unable to disseminate AIDS prevention information, or provide job training, it still provides a shelter where patients can talk and support each other. However, the Home has already had to move four times within the county town during the last two years. The first time was because after a year the landlord refused to renew the expired lease. The second because after just 15 days, the landlord broke the contract and did not allow them to stay. Therefore, they had to move to yet another place for a few months, but because many patients kept coming and going, tensions with neighbors soon arose. Today, the group is renting a private house, but when I went to interview them in October of 2013, their lease was to expire in six months and the landlord had already made it clear he had no intention of renewing it. Prospective tenants were already coming to view the property.
When the organization was first established, Liu Ximei would often go to Zhengzhou and elsewhere to attend meetings and training sessions for AIDS organizations. After a few times, she believed that the training sessions weren’t meeting her needs. The Mutual Help Home had an urgent need for guidance in becoming more organized and sustainable, whereas the training sessions were often teaching how to fight discrimination and protect privacy. When I visited, the Home had not yet obtained funding from foundations nor development agencies. They had to rely on online donations Ye Haiyan helped raise through her Weibo, and on the “hush money” ((“Hush money” refers to a sum of money local governments give petitioning patients to make them stop demonstrating in front of their headquarters)) obtained from the local government by patients on important days such as “World AIDS Day”, to pay their rent.
The Dengfeng Sunshine Home, which helps locals who were infected with HIV through blood transfusions secure definite compensation, is also based in Henan. Before being diagnosed with AIDS in 2005, Sunshine Home’s founder, Wang Qiuyun, was an official in the local healthcare system. Furthermore, her husband is an intellectual. These elements constitute an important background to explain the development of this small grassroots NGO. Unlike many other people living with HIV who petition the government for compensation, the Dengfeng Sunshine Home calls on a few local hospitals for compensation. In order to obtain conclusive evidence, they run around and collect testimonies from people who donated/sold their blood at the time. Quickly after getting compensation for a case, they once again carry out discussion and analysis, and continue to put pressure on hospitals, until a large portion of the people who had become infected through blood transfusions are finally given compensation. A family whose three members were infected received up to 550,000 RMB in damages. Sunshine Home helped infected people to get compensation, and also managed to get them on the basic living allowance to lay down the foundations for future community activities. They split the costs for the mutual-aid and volunteer service project funds.
In Hebei province, north of the Yellow River, there are also small grassroots groups providing services to women living with HIV. In 2005, with the help of a Beijing AIDS NGO leader, Meng Lin, Ma Guihong, a former village shop owner, established the Yongqing Half the Sky Mutual Aid Group, in order to provide services to local people living with HIV and help them fight for compensation. Subsequently, in 2007 Ma Guihong and the Half the Sky Mutual Aid group promoted the implementation of the “Four Free, One Care” policy in Yongqing county. Then, in 2010, they promoted the introduction of the “Implementing Opinions Concerning the Improvement of Our Province’s AIDS Community’s Health Care and Aid Work” in Hebei (commonly referred to as Document 7) and advocated that it be implemented in Yongqing in 2012, so all the people who became infected selling/donating their blood would receive a one-time compensation of 70,000 RMB.
The successful promotion and implemention of the policy is due to both the specifics of the Hebei AIDS epidemic and to Ma Guihong’s strategic work. Compared to Henan, there are a lot fewer people living with HIV in Hebei. According to 2013 statistics, Henan had a total of 59,380 cases of confirmed people living with HIV, while Hebei had only 4,010 ((Henan statistics confirm 59,380 people living with HIV. The proportion of students is growing http://henan.sina.com.cn/finance/y/2013-12-02/139-41833.html. The increase of people living with HIV in Hebei province for 2013 is more than three times higher than the 2012 increase http://news.ifeng.com/gundong/detail_2013_12/02/31715963_0.shtml)). Therefore, pressure for compensation in Hebei is lower than in Henan. In addition, Yongqing is less than a hundred kilometers away from Beijing, and is linked to the capital by a direct bus line providing people living with HIV with an easy way to go there to put pressure on their local government. After Hebei province published the “Document no 7”, Yongqing county kept postponing its implementation. Ma Guihong went to Beijing on “important dates” for two years in a row. As Ma Guihong puts it “each time we went, our attitude seemed extreme but our words did not break the law and our actions stayed on the brink of illegality. After a while, the government could not bear this pressure and started implementing document no 7 in January 2012”.
In Ma Guihong’s opinion, women living with HIV’s rights work now have an advantage because women in this group look relatively weaker than men and thus will encounter less direct violence. Therefore, if their work is maintained over a long period of time, they can achieve results.
The issues that Half the Sky faces are very similar to those of other organizations. Rights petitioning is their major form of advocacy. Firstly, this makes it hard for these organizations to register. Secondly, these organizations lack both the funding and capacity to carry out other projects (currently their main source of funding are small grants from the China Alliance of PLWHA). Another problem is the lack of expertise among younger staff. Even though these organizations look energetic, Ma Guihong has already become a grandmother and there is still no one else to lead the Half Sky development team.
As small and weak grassroots groups, former influential women HIV NGOs also have to face a lack of new capable personnel and the slow haemorrhaging of their current personnel.
When I interviewed the head and only full-time staff member of the China Women’s Network Against AIDS, Yuan Wenli, she lamented: “Why doesn’t [the China Women’s Network Against AIDS] have a second staff member? There used to be another staff member here I really was satisfied with, but now she has a well-paid and steady job. I asked her to come back many times, but she didn’t. I hope that more young people will volunteer [in this sector]. Most of the volunteers are women in their 30’s and 40’s, some even in their 50’s and 60’s. I’ve seen some women in their 20’s as well, but they have work and they’re taking [antiretroviral] medicine. They try to hide the fact that they are HIV-positive. This way they don’t face discrimination, so they do their thing and work. No matter how you try, you just can’t get them to come help out. This is a big problem.” Not only is it a problem that 20-somethings are hard to bring in to this sector, but the number of 30- and 40-year-old volunteers is dwindling. The founder of the China Women Network Against AIDS, He Tiantian (pseudonym) is an example of someone who left this field and went back to mainstream society. In 2011, she resigned as the head of the China Women Network Against AIDS and returned to her work as a high school teacher. Because of her heavy workload, she gradually moved away from her work with the network. Shanghai has only one women’s HIV group, Yiyimoli. The director, Ms. Wang (pseudonym), after doing several years of HIV work, returned to her job as a hospital doctor, a job that could provide her a decent living in a city such as Shanghai where financial pressure is high.
Female Sex Worker Organizations
Within the community of Chinese NGOs, there are only about 10 organizations that provide services for Female Sex Workers (FSW). The issues they are concerned with are marginal, and the community they serve often lacks knowledge and ability. Moreover, the mere survival of these organizations is very difficult.
Because prostitution is illegal, FSW organizations originated from HIV/AIDS intervention services. In 2007, Xiao Ai (pseudonym), who had been living and working in a city in northern China, came into contact with some HIV/AIDS organizations, and in the following year, she established an organization called Female Sex Workers’ Home. When I visited in January 2014, the FSW Home was renting a two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the city for office space, and was registered with Industry and Commerce and operating in name as an organization for the prevention of HIV/AIDS.
As a vulnerable and socially marginalized group, sex workers as a community itself is internally divided. Many of the staff and volunteers at the FSW Home worked as sex workers, but mostly as “middle and high income earners,” for example, working in karaoke bars, bath houses, etc. However, after its establishment, the FSW Home primarily worked to help those in the lower side of the income spectrum, such as those who work in hair salons or roadside stores. The difficulties that the latter group faces are comparatively greater. Not only are they more likely to not use condoms and be exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, but they are also more likely to be victims of anti-prostitution campaigns and “ custody and education” (shourong jiaoyu 收容教育). In order to address these problems, the FSW Home has launched a series of programs to encourage the use of condoms and promote the self-defense capabilities of low-income sex workers.
Because organizations like the FSW Home have staffs primarily composed of women, things such as outreach efforts are more easily accomplished. However, this also creates a development bottleneck. Since it is rare to have experienced, established organizations in this sector, in recent years, a number of foundations have been providing financial support to the FSW Home to help it conduct research projects, for example relating to the use of condoms, female sex workers living conditions, or the “custody and education” system. The purpose of conducting these research projects is to raise the ability of grassroots organizations. However, the FSW Home currently only has three full-time staff members and about ten volunteers. None of them are able to write these reports, and they must ask for help from women’s rights experts. They are usually very busy and additionally are not able to present their own findings. This has become a source of repeated headaches for Xiao Ai. She has long hoped to have college students join her organization, help research, complete reports, and contribute to advocacy. Furthermore, since there are not many women’s organizations in her city, if Xiao Ai wants to contact other organizations, her only option is to go to Beijing. Over the summer, Xiao Ai made the trip to Beijing several times to attend activities at a feminist school held during weekends. However, due to time and high cost of travel of the weekly round trip, she quickly gave this up.
Similarly to the FSW Home, another organization based in Kunming called Pingxing Busuan developed from a focus of providing services specifically to a single social group. It was also established in 2007, initially providing HIV/AIDS intervention services to MSM groups. Around 2011, there was a break in funding. The original director left the organization to work for the Department of Disease Control, leaving the two other members of the organization to maintain the basic cost of operations, which they did with their own personal funds. One of these members, Gaizi, now holds the director position. When Gaizi was a graduate student, she was a volunteer at Pingxing. This girl from Shandong fell in love with the climate of Yunnan and decided to stay. After working for over a year with a colleague named Liu Yifu, in 2012 Pingxing once again began receiving funding from Oxfam. The work of the organization also grew considerably, not only continuing to serve the MSM population, but also expanding to work with female sex workers, and gay and lesbian university students.
Because Pingxing is an organization built upon the interests and ideals of its staff, rather than one which developed from a specific community, it has difficulties in focusing on its core programs and establishing an organizational identity. Even though there are only four full-time staff workers, the scope of Pingxing’s work is actually very broad. Every month they hold 20 outreach programs for sex workers, 12 for women and 8 for men. They also research the living conditions of sex workers and current systems for HIV/AIDS testing. They moreover frequently go to universities and colleges in Kunming to host small activities for the gay and lesbian community. Furthermore, on special anniversary days, such as the “Anti-Domestic Violence Day,” Pingxing holds some street demonstrations. This is a lot of work, which makes establishing a concrete identity difficult. Although it does a lot of work for women (including female sex workers, lesbians and heterosexual women), Pingxing has little contact with women’s organizations. The majority of the national events Gaizi attends are organized by MSM organizations. When talking with other organizations about Pingxing, I found that people’s immediate reaction is that Pingxing is a MSM organization. On the other hand, when they have lot of work and are unable to raise enough funding, they are unwilling to delineate their work as HIV/AIDS prevention. Because of this, the organization is unable to get government funding. Currently, besides Oxfam, Pingxing does not have any other funding channels.
In addition to this organization, some other activists also work to promote the welfare and interests of the FSW community. Ye Haiyan (叶海燕) for example, founded Hongchen Wang (红尘网) in 2006 and began speaking out for the FSW community. In May 2013, Ye Haiyan, in response to the “Headmaster Hotel Case” that occurred in Hainan, held a sign that read “Get a Room with Me,” criticizing the sexual assault on girls and suggesting that school headmasters turn to sex workers for services and not to their pupils. Her behavior sparked an online public response of people imitating her message and advocating for the protection of young girls and made Ye Haiyan an internet celebrity. Later, Ye Haiyan returned to live in her hometown and continues to work to improve the rights of sex workers.
When I interviewed Ye Haiyan during the spring of 2014, she was living in the outskirts of Wuhan. At the time she was planning to turn her house into a library, a space that was temporarily being used by herself and other volunteers as an office. Currently, she is working on a project that is related to sex workers, mainly to create a new media platform called Red Umbrella (红雨伞). This platform is used to spread information translated from overseas by volunteers and share it on social media outlets such as Weixin and Weibo. She hopes to have more dialogue and communication with related departments in order to receive their support and understanding in order to continue her work.
Unlike women living with HIV or female sex workers, lesbians (also known as “Lala”) are marginalized because their sexual orientation is different from the mainstream. This community is spread over every level of society, extending through every industry and every occupation. However, those who choose to participate in the gay rights movement are often individuals who are relatively independent both in finances and thinking. Because of this, in contrast to the two types of organizations previously mentioned, the backbone of lesbian groups is often mostly “elites” — most have received a good education and have had extensive exposure to Western theories. The development path of lesbian groups and new women’s groups have similarities. In 2007 they began to hold “la-la camps.” In 2009 they began using performance art as a means of public advocacy. Within the field, they have an electronic publication similar to ‘Women’s Voice’ called the ‘Queer Lala Times’ (酷拉时报), which has raised many topics of discussion. Furthermore, in the early 2000s, they had already proposed a law to legalize same-sex marriage.
Currently, within the lesbian community, Common Language and the Chinese La-la Alliance are rather mature national organizations. Common Language was established in 2005. At that time, within the gay rights movement, MSM organizations had absolute speaking rights. Moreover, homosexual rights had no possibility to enter the women’s rights strategy at the time which consisted in “relying on the system, launching projects in communities”. The lesbian community was scattered among several small groups, which would meet in bars and online. Lesbians would meet in these places to communicate with each other and launch some literary activities. The founder of Common Language, Xu Bin, connected these groups, gradually forming a network.
In 2007, with the help of people from gay rights movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Common Language launched its first “La-la” volunteer training camp, which discovered and cultivated activists from the lesbian community, “incubated” small organizations from many different places, and set up a network. By 2008, because of the need for a specific organization managing the camps, lesbians from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas came together to establish the Chinese La-la Alliance, the Secretariat of which coordinates annual La-la Camps. Common Language, however, has changed the direction of its work. In addition to continuing its support of the development of small organizations, it mainly works now to educating the public and advocating policy changes. This includes, for example, conducting advocacy trainings, participating in campus lectures, and holding public advocacy and demonstrations on special international days.
In recent years, Common Language has promoted more practical law and policy research, and advocacy. They have for example advocated for the Ministry of Health to remove the rule banning lesbians from donating blood in 2012, or against a policy of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) that prevents material related to gays or lesbians from appearing on screen in 2013. They have worked with women’s organizations to advocate for anti-domestic violence law, and hope this law will not limit the definition of a “household” to that of a married, heterosexual couple, but rather more broadly includes same-sex partners therefore protecting lesbians.
In addition to the national organizations, there presently also are smaller local lesbian organizations that have some influence. The issues they focus on are broader, and they are in the initial process of establishing their own “brand.” Since 2012, Xi’an’s RELAX student organization has been working with local companies to include a “pluralist sexuality” area in Xi’an’s Sex Exhibition, displaying LGBT culture to the public and becoming the first official, formal event of its kind to occur on the Mainland. Girl Love, by contrast, is an organization based in Shanghai, which brings a flavor of the international metropolis into its programs. In March of 2014, Girl Love published the first “LGBT Anti-Workplace Discrimination Report,” analyzing the different degree of tolerance towards LGBT of different businesses operating in the same city. The organization Qiyuan Yisheng’s (奇缘一生) most famous project provides an exchange platform and legal services for “formal marriage” groups ((In order to avoid pressure from society and for other reasons, gay men and lesbian women sometimes marry each other)). He Xiaopei, a sexuality expert who has been based in Shenyang for a long time, filmed a documentary titled “lifelong relationship ((The documentary and the organization have the same name))” with Xiao Xiong, the founder of Qiyuan Yisheng, and her friends. The documentary was selected as a competitor for films festival in Amsterdam, Berlin, and other places. At the International Film Awards in Berlin in August 2014, they received an Honorable Mention Award.
In addition, there are several active “feminist la-la” groups among current lesbian organizations. The core volunteers of these groups are usually lesbians with a very strong feminist awareness. Although they do not have a specific “brand,” their activities often demonstrate a strong critical mind and activist principles, forming the backbone of lesbian demonstrations and advocacy. However, there are also some lesbian groups which have remained at the level of having exchanges between volunteers and holding literary activities. On each international day related to women and LGBT rights, Common Language and the La-La Alliance give out small grants to smaller groups who organize small activities linked to the day’s theme. But once the activity is over, these small groups usually continue “exchanging feelings” and have difficulties developing proper projects for sustainable organizational development.
The reasons behind this phenomenon are related to an overall lack of resources of the Chinese lesbian movement, a lack of core members capable of delivering long-term sustainable services as well as clear direction for development in the field. The most fundamental reason is financial. Currently funding for lesbian organizations comes from a small number of foreign foundations, and the funds are concentrated in mature organizations in big cities. The funds available to directly support the development of local small groups are very limited. Foundations who fund them through Common Language or the Chinese Lala Alliance do it only for small-scale activities on international days. The issue of qualified personnel is also related to this lack of funding. Currently, this field does not lack qualified members, but lesbian organizations have difficulties retaining them. Many of the core volunteers participate as students, but, after graduation, most either go to study abroad or find a well-paid full-time job. Therefore, lesbian organizations can only rely on volunteers to carry out their work.
Another problem of the current lesbian movement is that it has issues answering the following questions: Where is the social base for its development? Is it female college students or people who understand queer theory? Is it all lesbians? What are these people particular needs? If it’s the former, maybe they need to “come out of the closet,” hold “gay pride” demonstrations, or further explore academic theory. But if the hope is to have all lesbians be the base for policy and legal advocacy, then what are the needs of this huge community? Lü Pin has in the past put forward the idea that the feminist movement has both ‘strategic’ and ‘practical’ needs but that it first should respond to women’s practical needs in order to broaden its support base. The lesbian movement is no different. The present work of the aforementioned group Qiyuan Yisheng on formal marriage in Shenyang, is a practical need of many lesbians. Another practical need, which is more likely to attraction attention and get more support, is same-sex marriage. For many lesbians who can find a comfortable space in mainstream society, the need for “coming out of the closet,” “pride,” and “exploring how sexual behavior and sexual orientation diversify mainstream society” (ie, one viewpoint of queer theory) is not so strong. Therefore, how to respond to the needs of this broad lesbian community and base its related legal and policy advocacy efforts on those needs is the next question that lesbian organizations must now consider.
Women’s Labor Organizations
It was noted previously that that there are three categories of social groups whose marginalized status is related to gender issues. These are sexually transmitted diseases, sex work, and sexual inclination. Women in the labor force, however, are also marginalized because of their class status. The “worker” has historically occupied an honorable and respected position in China’s political discourse, but in the wake of the reform and opening up era and the beginning of marketization, workers were being pushed further and further towards the vulnerable edges of society, largely as a consequence of their relatively low income. This background is a factor explaining the development of women’s labor organizations and the fact that there are women of educated and privileged backgrounds who are interested in offering their services and leadership in the field of women’s labor advocacy.
Looking at the political space they occupy and the flow of their resources, some women’s labor NGOs in China cannot be considered as marginalized. This is the case for the many vocational training centers affiliated to local women’s federations across the country such as the Shanghai Zhabei District Women Employment Promotion Center. In the NGO sector, Rural Women Knowing All and its subsidiaries Women Workers’ Home, Rural Women’s School and, in Guangdong, Green Shoots Village Women’s Development Foundation, also provide women workers with vocational training and education. They have also undertaken projects to increase awareness of the realities of women migrant worker’s lives’ through media exposure while advocating for greater government attention to the problems faced by women workers. While these projects are implemented smoothly, other women labor organizations working in factories in Southern China face hardships. In 2012 and 2013, women worker organizations in Shenzhen were forced to move repeatedly and faced difficulties to survive.
Aside from the organizations’ manager elite background and resources, the differences in the way women labor organizations work is due to the specifics of female migrant work. The bulk of women labor organizations in the north is composed of domestic and service workers scattered in private homes or businesses. On breaks or vacation periods, these organizations enter domestic workers communities, finding it relatively easy to integrate their daily lives and provide community services such as entertainment performances and children and women’s education programs. The work of women labor organizations in the south is more focused on the conditions of young women working in factories. They work to establish community service centers that offer help with both work related issues and personal troubles faced by migrant women workers. Moreover, the fact that these organizations are self-developed makes them more easily work on labor-capital relations, carry out rights protection activities to obtain compensation for workers victim of occupational injuries, and other more antagonist issues.
In the wake of developments in women’s rights advocacy and rights issues, there have been significant changes in domestic worker organizations in the north as well as in female worker organizations in the south. In terms of support from foundations, the Women’s Media Monitoring Network began a domestic workers awareness project in 2012, “the domestic workers voices ”, collecting the stories and testimonies of domestic workers and sending them to media channels to be broadcasted to a large audience. They also co-organized a number of domestic workers groups such as the Beijing Rural Women Workers, the Jinan Community Based Social Integration Center, (济南积成社区社会服务中心) the Xi’an Domestic Workers Union (西安家政工工会) into advocacy activities calling for setting rules for employers. In recent years, documentary filmmaker and founder of the “One Yuan Commune” Han Hongmei has started paying attention to domestic workers and collaborated with them to film documentaries in the hope of bringing together former scattered and taciturn domestic workers so that they can make their voices heard.
In the south, despite the depressing environment for labor organizations, female worker organizations have also been influenced, mostly because gender equality issues are less sensitive than other labor issues such as collective bargaining and rights defense. Therefore, in recent years, female worker organizations and women’s rights organizations have collaborated to carry out advocacy projects to improve gender equality. A good example is the Hand in Hand Friends of Laborers Activity Room (手牵手工友活动室), who has, since 2011, carried out themed advocacy demonstrations on the Internaitonal Women’s Day including, “Male Workers Wear High Heels (男工友穿高跟鞋)”, “100 Unhappy Female Workers (女工的100个不爽) ” , and “Our Vagina’s Story”. 2013 also saw the initiation of extensive sexual harassment investigation by the Guangzhou Panyu Sunflower Center, which shared information and compiled reports that attracted media and public attention to problems of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Still, according to female worker organizations in the south, support from Chinese foundations is greatly needed in order to widen the available space for development.
Gender Issues in Marginalized Women’s Organizations
Among the four types of women’s organizations mentioned earlier, the primary goals of service and rights advocacy is far from being realized; the number of mature groups is still small, many organizations lack resources and long-term personnel, and most of them still lack sufficient political space. In addition to these problems, there are differences in the understanding and treatment of issues concerning gender equality between female worker organizations and the other women’s groups detailed in the previous two sections of this article. The agendas and gender equality theory of lesbian organizations, female worker organizations and women’s organizations often overlap, but women’s AIDS groups and women sex workers groups do not have a great degree of contact with women’s rights groups, and in their work they do not often touch upon the topic of gender equality issues.
This is first of all related to differences in the development and member constituency between organizations in different fields. In China, the activities of women’s groups originated in intellectual circles and reached a pitch in fervor around the 1995 UN World Women Forum, which inspired intellectuals and female university students to form women’s rights groups. At the time, these groups tended to be made up of educated and financially privileged members of society.
Women’s labor organizations in China, in both the north and south, have always maintained close links with an intellectual elite contingent of women activists, therefore contemporary domestic and labor workers organizations are the types of marginalized groups organizations where women’s rights organizations (regardless of which specific group category) are the most present.
Also founded by intellectuals and female university students, LGBT organizations and second generation women organizations share similar working methods and have often cooperated on some issues in recent years, bringing about the common derision that “all feminists are lesbians”, and that all feminist organizational leadership is to be found among a small coterie of ‘feminist lesbians’. As Common Language founder Xu Bin points out, the fact that in 2005, LGBT organizations began to conduct feminist training sessions lead largely by lesbian members has much to do with the assumption that LGBT activists are always linked with feminist groups. Although these training sessions began with LGBT groups, the ideas being disseminated are more inclined towards civil rights awareness and promoting social advancement. Therefore the training aiming at embed LGBT organizations in their community also served as a platform for emerging women’s rights groups to establish themselves.
Women’s AIDS groups and women sex workers’ groups explain their establishment mainly by their need to help communities they serve survive and face illness, disability and discrimination. Therefore, the issue of gender equality is secondary, and when these organizations carry out activities to promote gender equality, it is often under the influence of their donors. For example, UNAIDS and UNWOMEN hope that the China Women Network Against AIDS they helped establish can build “close relationships” with the Women’s Federation and other women’s rights organizations ((Andrew Wells-Dang, The China Women’s Network against AIDS: Between Donors and the Grassroots)). However while on the one hand traditional women’s groups are unlikely to work on these issues because they are constrained by their identities and proximity with the system; on the other hand members of marginalized women organizations, especially AIDS and sex workers groups, do not naturally possess a gender equality consciousness. Furthermore, their level of education makes it impossible for them to master the relevant theories in a few training sessions. They usually hav a tendency to discuss and cooperate with male organizations operating in their field. Maybe entering these communities is a work that second generation women’s groups can and need to do in the future.