The Women of Guanyun County
Photographs by M. Scott Brauer
Not more than a few hours from Shanghai and other major urban centers, the people of Guanyun County, Jiangsu Province, China, fight for their very survival. Most are subsistence farmers, and education is a privilege reserved for those who can afford not to have their children work in the fields. Mortality is high. This is the poorest county in prosperous Jiangsu Province, and its residents are drowning in the increased cost of living which comes with China's great push to modernization. Guanyun County has been passed by.
An aging population, China's one-child policy, and the lack of social welfare within the country have been particularly hard on the people of Guanyun County--especially girl children and women. Boys are highly desired for their strength in farm work, and female children must fulfill the double duty of working on the farm and eventually rearing a child to care for aging relatives. As cost of living goes up, men and boys of working age leave the county to find higher-paying work in the cities, increasing the burden on the women left behind. Charities from nearby Nanjing have taken up the cause of the county, providing money for basic home improvements and the cost of schooling, easing the difficulties of daily life. Without their contributions, many of the children would grow up without education and the women left to farm would be unable to afford the cost of basic necessities.
These difficulties are perhaps strongest felt by Guanyun County's orphans. The horrors of China's orphanages are well-known, and the residents of Guanyun do their best to keep orphaned children out of the state-run institutions. Many women, once widowed, are forced to remarry and abandon their children due to the lack of jobs in the area and social custom. These young children, whose parents have died or disappeared, remain in school and their hometowns through the kindness of neighbors and distant relatives. The opportunity for success is small, but it's a grasp toward hope in an otherwise meager existence.
But where there is despair, there is also hope. Through both local and province-wide social programs, the area is beginning to show signs of a new future. Education reaches more children than ever before and local women's groups have provided scholarships for young girls. Industry in the area is beginning to develop, and with that, hopefully, family incomes will rise to meet the cost of living. Progress will not be swift, but optimism within the communities is growing.
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