China’s ‘left-behind girls’ learn self-protection

Safe spaces for girls left by migrating parents have been set up and trainings are on-going for children, teachers, community leaders and public authorities to prevent sexual violence, supported by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women.


A normally quiet second-grade girl, Yuan Yuan* suffers from a mild mental disorder which impacts her ability to learn and communicate. Her father, mentally disabled, left her several years ago to find work in the city and his family hasn’t heard from him since. Unable to support the family, her mother also left and never returned. Yuan Yuan’s paternal grandparents have been caring for her since. But they are not always there.

“I am scared of that man... he laughed at me and touched me. I don't like him,” 8-year-old Yuan Yuan admitted during a visit from Zhang Xinyu, a programme officer with the Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women (BCDC), after a local Women’s Federation referred her complaint that a 70-year-old neighbour had sexually assaulted her.

In Yuan Yuan’s case, BCDC paid for her medical treatment and coordinated with the local Women’s Federation to ensure they could respond and prevent any further attempts of the neighbour to access the child.

In China, girls learn how to say "no" when they are about to be hurt
At Fuhe Primary School in Suizhou, central China, students learn how to protect themselves in interpersonal relationships. In this exercise, they are encouraged to say “no” to their partner when they believe they are too close and the balloon will pop and "hurt" them. Photo: Xinyu Zhang

Yuan Yuan is among more than 2,500 girls being helped by a programme funded by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, which is managed by UN Women on behalf of the UN system. The programme has brought together teachers, guardians, local police officers and health-care providers to protect China’s “left-behind girls.” 

China’s rapid economic growth, driven by manufacturing industries on the eastern side of the country, combined with high unemployment and low wages in the central and western regions have driven China’s incredible internal migration of an estimated 2 million people moving from the rural countryside to its industrial cities.[i] In many cases, parents are compelled to migrate to the cities without their children because of the hukou (household registration) system which stipulates that children access public schooling only in their home town or village.

According to a 2012 report by the All-China Women's Federation, the number of left-behind children totals over 61 million, with the number of girls totaling over 28 million. Close to 33 per cent of all left-behind children are raised by their grandparents, while 10.7 per cent are raised by other villagers or relatives, and at least 3.4 per cent are forced to fend for themselves.[ii]

In addition to funds provided by the UN Trust Fund, UN Women provides technical assistance to BCDC on reducing the risk of sexual violence against rural children, with a particular focus on girls whose parents have migrated to the cities. The programme seeks to: increase girls’ sexual knowledge and self-protection; ensure that both guardians and the community are willing and able to provide the guidance needed to reduce their vulnerability to sexual abuse; and to alter the social environment that promotes sexual violence and empower women and girls. 

In China, girl learns how to identify human body parts
As part of student sexual safety training at Yindian Central Primary School, in Suizhou, central China, a 6-year-old girl circles the private parts of a human body after having learned how to identify them on female and male human bodies. Photo: Xinyu Zhang

“To protect ourselves and learn how to say NO to strangers is very important,” says Xiao Mei, a student in 7th grade. She says she was very proud that she could share a training manual and her learned self-protection skills with her siblings. “My older sister said to me that she was very shy and never had this information in the past.” 

By the end of 2013, 500 local teachers, 5,000 students and 2,200 guardians had participated in training programmes on awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse and 210 ‘backbones’ – women and men leaders active in the community – had participated in trainings on the dangers of child sexual abuse. 

The programme implemented by BCDC has set up six resource centres (three community-based and three in schools), to protect children and prevent sexual violence. In villages, they establish managerial groups and in schools, teachers organize activities around the themes of left-behind girls’ safety, such as reading activities, lectures and performances to raise awareness of prevention of child sexual abuse. 

Handbooks about children and sexual abuse are developed and delivered to students as part of a Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women project in 2013. Photo courtesy of the BCDC
Handbooks about children and sexual abuse are developed and delivered to students as part of a Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women project in 2013. Photo courtesy of the BCDC.

Furthermore, with the funding from the UN Trust Fund, technical support from UN Women and national experts, a series of handbooks on girls’ safety education, covering knowledge about sex, sexual abuse and gender, including gender equality, gender-based violence and their connection were produced and disseminated. 

Shen Xiaoyan, a Fuhe Primary School teacher in Suizhou, central China, recalls a remark by a colleague when she was preparing a presentation for a student sexual safety training in 2013. “These things [sexual education materials] appear so normal to me [now]. Why did I feel embarrassed about them only a few years ago?” 

The programme has changed attitudes and removed barriers of silence, with several stakeholders reporting cases of sexual abuse. 

“After training and project activities, local residents and government officials have become willing to seek out all possible resources to help victims of child sexual abuse,” said the BCDC’s Ms. Zhang Xinyu. “In the past, this kind of information was considered secret, deterring victims and family from revealing it to other people.”

In a testament to the growing attention to the plight of left-behind children and the sexual abuse against left-behind girls, proposals influenced by the programme were submitted in 2012 by the Women’s Federation to the People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference in Suizhou, a city in central China. In 2013, the Educational Department in Suizhou issued a policy document requiring the strengthening of safety education for students in all primary and middle schools.

*Name changed to protect her identity.

For more information, check out the In Focus editorial package on The Girl Child on the new Beijing+20 campaign website.

National Bureau of Statistics of China, 22 February, 2013.

“Study on Left-behind Children in rural Areas and Migrant Children in urban Areas” conducted by the All-China Women Federation, 10 May, 2013.