Since coming to China, my husband and I have become interested in the lives of Chinese migrant laborers. Last semester we taught English at a school for migrant children and this semester my husband has an internship working with an NGO that helps gives legal advice to migrants and helps them adapt to life in the city. Working at the school was a wakeup call; the stark difference between the nice schools and well-dressed children around our neighborhood and the conditions in which the migrant children learn is astounding. Instead of wearing neat matching uniforms, the students wore matching neck kerchiefs. The building is old and drab and the classrooms have no digital capabilities. Each of our classes packed 70 children into the room, making it almost impossible to keep order and engage everyone. Our curriculum felt like a joke. It was not uncommon for us to teach one thing and come back the next week and find that the students were still on the same lesson. Their textbooks were badly in need of updating; I didn’t see the point of even teaching them terms like “cassette player”. As a disclaimer, I am talking about my experience teaching one subject in one school. I can’t speak for the condition of other schools other than generalities that I have read about in news articles.
This means that migrant children, both male and female, are limited because of their birth. Most come from rural towns where they have few opportunities. An article in the March 27-28 English China Daily discusses new research that shows that rural children are “three to six times more likely than city children to die before they turn 5.” They also have fewer educational opportunities. The problem, however, is that when migrant laborers settle in a Chinese city they are not considered residents of that city but still of their rural home. This has widespread implications for healthcare, education, legal issues, and more. Because education money is given to provinces based on their number of children and migrant children are considered residents of where they are from and not where their parents work, they cannot access the educational institutions of their city-born peers. To cover the needs of the children, unofficial or illegal schools sprout up but do not necessarily provide them with as good of an education. According to another article, “The only long-term solution is wide-ranging and systematic reform of the social welfare system and abolition of the hukou [registration] system.” That is huge and seems unlikely in the near future, although the article says demands for change are mounting.
This issue affects both female and male students. And when I think of the lack of education that rural and migrant children face, it does not surprise me that many of the tough issues for Chinese women are predominantly rural problems. Some examples include maternal and infant mortality and bride trafficking. We have discussed over and over at WomanStats that education for men and women is key in helping societies combat discrimination against women and until China confronts the education crisis that is happening all over the country, I am afraid that the same problems will continue to perpetuate themselves. And this breaks my heart when I think of our beautiful students and hope for their futures.