Women Hold Up Half the Sky: The Matriarchs of Qinghai

GEI Insight by: Shengnian XU, Energy and Climate Change Program Officer

天津快乐十分一定牛:Women Hold Up Half the Sky: The Matriarchs of Qinghai

SANJIANGYUAN (Mar. 8, 2017) – As Mao Zedong says, “women hold up half the sky” but under Qinghai’s wide, bright, blue skies, however, the few women acting as “heads of household” are struggling to make ends meet. In China’s beautiful and underdeveloped West, women are still following traditional societal domestic roles and as GEI’s latest research has found, their vulnerability is intensifying as the local environment worsens on account of climate change.

An artistic rendition of the colorful West – GEI 2016

In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re sharing one aspect of our ecosystem conservation and community development project in Qinghai. In this project, which has been active since 2013, we involve the local people in environmental protection as a mechanism for improving their livelihoods.

In fact, we believe that one of the main dangers of environmental protection work is isolating the local people from their environment. By doing so you risk undercutting the sustainability of the plan and causing tension between the locals and the government. As such, it’s best to consider how to unify the indigenous people and protected regions. This win-win solution was the strategy and vision of Global Environmental Institute (GEI)’s Ecosystem Conservation & Community Development Program.

Our Research

In fall 2016, GEI carried out scoping and research studying the vulnerability of community herdsmen. We distributed a questionnaire amongst 205 herdsmen in Yushu County, Qinghai Province, and in the town of Panyu County (Maozhuang Township, Baizha Township) and Bumam County (Zhixin Township) in Guoluo Prefecture, Qinghai Province.

Villagers in the beautiful Qinghai Region – GEI 2017

Survey results showed that making a living is the biggest challenge facing the herdsmen. Another area of vulnerability involved the socio-demographics, including lows levels of education and skills training.

Qinghai’s Matriarchs

In the 205-household survey, most are led by a patriarch with only 13 run by females.

Focusing in on these female-run households, we conducted analysis on statistical vulnerability.
We found that these female-run households have fragile health and social problems and are overall weaker. More in-depth analysis found that when the woman is the head of the household, the family unit was smaller with a greater proportion of elderly relatives to children; the head-of-house had a lower education level; the family labor force was generally not receiving skill-based training; the number of animals owned by the house was about half; the government subsidy received is relatively small; and the proportion of chronically sick family members is larger.

The data offered a grimmer finding: several female-led households saw harsher realities.


Suo Nan Zhou MA: Qinghai’s Matriarch

Suo Nan Zhou Ma with her horse – GEI 2015

As a young girl, Suo Nan Zhou MA dreamed of being a doctor. But as her brothers went to school, she had to stay home and care for her ailing parents and the household. As Qinghai’s wide grasslands and many water sources were impacted by climate change and human activities, Suo Nan Zhou Ma struggled to find fresh grass and noticed more trash gathering in the river banks. She did her best to keep her academic dreams alive.

After her village participated in our project, they were involved in river clean-up, water monitoring and protecting the grassland. Some women even got involved in making handicrafts that were sold and benefitted the community development fund. After a couple years, the fund was strong enough to support Suo Nan Zhou Ma to raise enough money to tend to her family and finally attend medical school.

The Environment: The Other Side of Livelihood Vulnerability

It is important to recognize that livelihood vulnerability is just one side of the story. As an environmental NGO we are diligently aware that the natural environment both provides opportunities and hinders communities from reaching their full potential.

Located in the heights of the plateau, Sanjiangyuan (三江源) is the source of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong Rivers. Endowed with a variety of biological resources, like mountains, glaciers, grasslands and lakes, its special geography is particularly sensitive to climate change. For the locals, Sanjiangyuans’ great supply of water is the most critical element to the ecology. In fact, the herdsmen live around these streams and their animals graze right next to the streams. In 2016, China’s central government established the Sanjiangyuan National Park to elevate the importance of this region and its protection.

In order to better understand the results of the survey and continuing to improve our community development work, GEI hosted a round-table discussion, “Sanjiangyuan Community Climate Adaptation Seminar,” to analyze the findings. Participating in the discussion were Dr. Chen Chen, expert from US-based ND-GAIN Climate Change Adaptation Index; Prof. Yan Jizhong, Chongqing Southwest University; Dr. Li Yingming and Dr. Du Yanjun, Chinese Academy of Science; Hu Wei and Hong Liwei, OxFam Hong Kong Poverty Alleviation Project Officials.

These experts discussed the results and engaged in heated discussion about the “next steps” for the project, which will begin with submitting recommendations. The main conclusion was that ecotourism, a practice based on scientifically exploring water source monitoring and handicraft training, are likely to be effective means to achieve ecological protection and community development. The main reason is that these activities reflect the traditional life of herdsmen. Importantly problems still exist, like the grassland rodents, but for the time being, solutions have yet to be confirmed.

Next Steps

To continue to support these vulnerabilities and bring hope to the women of Qinghai, there is much to be done. For our part, GEI will improve our projects, and include opportunities especially for women’s empowerment and involvement in the community development, like the handicraft workshop, etc. There are two ways for you to get involved – first, stay educated and second, give what you can!

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