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At Large

Harsh realities in a beautiful setting

/ 12:11 AM September 23, 2015

KUNMING—This capital of Yunnan province, which borders Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Vietnam, is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” because of the year-round mild weather. For tropical Filipinos, however, “mild” weather can sometimes mean Baguio weather, cool and balmy.

In the countryside, everywhere we went, flowers were in full bloom, carefully landscaped in the parks and walkways, and teeming in wild abandon in the open spaces.

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Yes, it is a beautiful place, but it hides a painful reality. Yunnan is one of China’s poorest provinces. Wang Wei, director general of the Foreign Affairs Office of Yunnan, said it is “challenged with the very heavy task of poverty alleviation”: Of the 47 million population, 5.7 million are still living below the poverty line, the second-highest number in all of China.

Yunnan is also home to 26 ethnic groups, the largest variety of peoples in the country, with 15 unique to the province. Working with the ethnic groups involves special challenges, said Chen Guobao, deputy director general of the Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development. To meet their special needs, Chen said, they are embarking on three main strategies: Improve the infrastructure, nurture basic industries and improve the social security system. Their goal, he said, as stated in the latest Chinese National Congress proceedings, is “to get all people living under the poverty line out of poverty by 2020,” thereby removing the “title” of “poor” from certain counties and villages.

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We saw some evidence of these efforts when we visited the Lingxiu Community in the Fenghuang subdistrict of Yuxi City, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Kunming.

There we were brought to the village office, surrounded by residential buildings standing on what were once homesteads converted into modern-style apartments for the community’s residents. The building project, said local officials, was part of the government’s aim to stem rural-urban migration, coupled with a program of job generation and promotion of the rural economy.

We then made our way to a nearby plaza, where onstage were a group of senior women folk who performed for us a dance ostensibly celebrating the local harvest, with baskets of lemons, cherries, pears and other produce, albeit in plastic recreations.

Another showcase of the provincial government’s efforts to raise the farming communities to middle-class status was the West Gucheng Village, which looked like many of the condominium enclaves that dot our own metropolis. The units were all built following a general Chinese aesthetic, with tiled roofs and cement foot bridges over ponds teeming with koi, with common areas generously given over to flowering gardens.

One of Yunnan’s major products is tobacco. On a visit to the Hongta Park and Museum of Tobacco History, we were led on a tour of wooden buildings each celebrating the history of tobacco culture and of notable figures in history—most prominent of whom was Chairman Mao himself—who were smokers. The park overlooks the cigarette factory site, whose sprawl was evidence of the continuing booming tobacco business in China. No health warning signs in sight!

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Of the province’s population, said Zheng Lu, who heads the Provincial Federation of Women, 48.5 percent are women and girls.

Their office’s work to lift the conditions of women in Yunnan are anchored on several aspects, she said. First is “improving women’s capabilities, especially in [anti]poverty work.” This includes training women in livelihood courses, including technical and vocational subjects, while also helping in the health needs of women, specifically free screening for breast and cervical cancers.

Next is providing financial support through scholarships for young women to continue their education from the basic level to senior high school. Called the “Spring Bud” project, the federation has spent some 11 million yuan (almost P77 million) on it, benefiting almost 4,000 girls.

There is also a special effort made to reach out to women in the border areas, especially foreign women (most are from Myanmar) who marry Chinese men and are then abandoned to fend for themselves.

There is also work being done to train women on self-employment, or in finding more stable, higher-paying jobs. As Madame Zheng put it: “Encourage women to do a good job in their own positions.”

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The Philippine government’s efforts to improve the lot of women were also presented by the visiting congresswomen.

Head of delegation Rep. Gina de Venecia of Pangasinan, who heads the association of women legislators, spoke of the Philippine government’s efforts to “empower low-income Filipinos to help themselves.” She cited the “4Ps” program, which aims to eradicate extreme poverty in the country by investing in the health and education of mothers and their children.

De Venecia also mentioned the efforts of Tesda (or the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority) to train men and especially women in livelihood courses, including nontraditional fields like welding, appliance repair and motor vehicle maintenance for women.

For her part, Rep. Linabelle Villarica of Bulacan, who chairs the House committee on women and gender relations, spoke on the many legislative breakthroughs achieved in promoting the rights of women. Of particular importance, she said, was the passage of the Magna Carta of Women, which ensures that the rights of women under the law are recognized, respected and promoted.

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TAGS: China, City of Eternal Spring, Gina de Venecia, Kunming, Linabelle Villarica, Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, Tesda, Yunnan
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