Since the 1970s, China has officially been on a mission to lift every member of its population out of poverty. The government says its efforts have succeeded in parts of the country, but acknowledges that there are still people in rural areas that have largely been left behind.
“The last forty years of rapid economic growth have left a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor, the urban and rural,” says Ching Tien, a Beijing native and founder of the Canadian NGO Educating Girls in Rural China (EGRC). “Though the living conditions in rural China in even the poorest regions have improved — food and shelter are no longer a widespread struggle, for instance — higher education is still out of reach for students from poorer families, particularly girls.”
Lunchtime exercises at Minxuan No. 2 High School in Gansu province, where EGRC has sponsored many female students
For 15 years, Tien and her team have changed the lives of over 1,200 young women throughout rural China, helping them pursue better prospects that would otherwise be out of reach. The organization aims to help women break the cycle of poverty through education, in hopes that they in turn will make up a generation of future leaders.
The programs largely target Gansu and Guizhou provinces in western China, which have the lowest GDP in the country. (As a teenager, Tien herself was forced to leave school and work in a chemical factory in Gansu for eight years before emigrating to Canada.)
In rural parts of Gansu, income per capita is about seven times lower than that of first-tier cities like Beijing or Shanghai, according to Business for Better Society. Some families’ incomes that EGRC has sponsored are only 400 to 500USD annually, far lower than the local average.
“One of our graduates that became a school teacher recently told me that the education access gap between rural and urban areas can set students back as much as 30 years — an entire generation,” says Tien.
I can see that in urban areas, children from middle class families have access to advanced learning such as private school, tutoring, studying abroad, and learning opportunities for sports and arts. Meanwhile a rural high school graduate may still not know how to use a laptop.
“Their learning is limited to in the classroom, a blackboard and textbooks. Most of them have never been to a city. The gap is tremendous.”
In addition to outdated education methods, Tien says that women in these areas still face additional hurdles based on outdated attitudes towards gender. “A good percentage of our girls were given away after birth due to their gender, because their families wanted to have at least one son,” she says. “They’re often asked to quit school and support their male siblings’ education, or are expected to pay for their weddings, their housing… Here, if a woman fails to give birth to a son, she might not only face discrimination from her family, village, and society, but also the possibility of physical and emotional abuse, and divorce.”
Many women the organization has helped in the past also came from families where they, or their parents, struggled to work or pursue education due to illness or disability. Alumnus Wang Bixia, who had previously completed her undergraduate studies with sponsorship from EGRC, joined the team for the summer of 2015 to help organize student meetings and select its high school sponsorship recipients in Gansu. “Since [I graduated in 2010], the Chinese government has made an effort to improve the lives of people in rural villages,” she says. “I expected changes and improvement upon my arrival.
“However, my trip to different rural regions of Gansu made me realize that certain aspects were much worse than I imagined. Among the 46 high school sponsorship recipients we selected [that year], many were orphans or from a single-parent family. The rest of them had sick or disabled parents or siblings. Life is very difficult for these girls and their families.”
Wang Bixia (left) and Wang Zhimei (right), both EGRC alumni
Another alumnus of the program, Wang Zhimei, struggled with a stammer as a young girl that both she and her parents thought was “incurable.” That started to change in high school, when Wang came across a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, which attributed stammering to inner fear. “I was inspired to overcome my inner fear by reading aloud in the early mornings, greeting to strangers and raising my hands to ask questions in class,” she says.
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Her confidence blossomed further through EGRC, when in 2016 she was tasked to share her experiences with another shy girl named Jane. “When I finished, Auntie Tien said to me: ‘You are extraordinary,'” Wang recalls. “I never thought such a sentence could be used to describe myself.”
In order to broaden its impact, the NGO largely depends on outside funding via their yearly #SponsoraGirl campaign. To get involved, learn more on our Instagram.
All images: courtesy EGRC
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