Unmarried By 27? According To China You're A 'Leftover Woman'
In 2007, the Chinese government coined the term ‘Sheng Nu’, which translates to ‘leftover woman’.
It was part of an official campaign targeting women in their mid-to-late 20s. If they weren't yet married and preferably mothers, they were considered ‘leftover’-- in other words, wasted and unwanted. It was a shameful status that reflected poorly on women and their families, and put them under immense societal pressure to wed.
One of the goals of the campaign was to boost China's rapidly declining population. But women slapped with the 'Sheng Nu' label have faced serious stigma, which continues to this day.
They are ridiculed, looked down upon, seen as a burden to their parents, are expected to work harder and longer, are usually relied upon to take on the caring duties of elderly relatives and can find themselves constantly being asked to explain their decision or circumstances.
In a recent BBC documentary, women labelled ‘Sheng Nu’ talked about feeling stressed about their age, concerned about not being married and fear of ridicule and judgement from their friends, family and strangers should they not find a husband and start a family before they hit the magic age of 27.
One woman reported that her family was so ashamed of her being unmarried that they refused to take her to family gatherings. At one point, her father threatened to disown her if she was not married within 12 months.
“They're afraid their friends and neighbours will regard me as abnormal. And my parents would also feel they were totally losing face, when their friends all have grandkids already,” she said.
On International Women's Day especially, it's critical to examine how far women around the world have to go to achieve equal rights, equal status and and control over their own lives, bodies and decisions.
Already, we know women experience stigma, shaming and judgment for a myriad of reasons. We see from history that when women are shamed for being too fat, too thin, too loud, not loud enough, too promiscuous, frigid, smart, dumb, (I could go on forever), they feel an unfair pressure to alter their behaviour and appearance to attempt to fit society’s standards.
And pressure to marry and have children -- as 'leftover women' in China can attest -- robs women of their choices and their bodily autonomy. In 2019, women around the world, even in Australia, are still finding themselves with a similar lack of control.
Recently, Marie Stopes Australia released a ground-breaking white paper on reproductive coercion. The term refers to any behaviour, attitude or structural barrier that may impede the ability of a woman to decide if, when and how she begins a family. Of course, things like difficulty accessing abortion and contraception, controlling partners, family and intimate partner violence and religion were all listed as major factors to a woman’s ability to make that choice.
Government and media were also found to be a major influence on reproductive coercion. It is an emerging area of study globally, but given the already shocking findings it is so important that we fight it on a global scale, and we address it at every level.
“We know that in societies where there tends to be rigid gender roles that characterise the man as the ‘breadwinner’ and the woman as the ‘child-bearer’, you do see higher rates of violence against women,” Marie Stopes Australia spokeswoman Jacquie O’Brien said.
“The way that our society drives and reinforces these roles really does need to be questioned if we are to tackle the root causes of violence.
“There is also intense pressure on women, from a very young age, to conform to a certain role as a wife and mother and this can lead to coercive and often physically violent ways of forcing women to carry out these roles.
“In developing the White Paper a number of women told us that they felt their partners were making them take on these roles when they actually didn’t want to or weren’t ready to be a wife or mother.”
A government having the audacity to run a campaign labelling women as ‘leftover’ if they choose not to marry or have a family is ridiculous. It is also incredibly harmful.
The term implies that these women are lesser than their married, childrearing counterparts.
Lesser means less respect for your personal boundaries. It means less acknowledgement of hardships you face and injustices you may have to fight.
There is still so much to be done in the fight for rights and equality. For women around the world, when it comes to marriage, relationships, sex and motherhood (and all other aspects of a woman's life), we need to work tirelessly to ensure this simple standard: it's her body, her life and her choice.