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China's New Prosperity Leaves Rural Women Behind

Women in China's booming cities are enjoying unprecedented economic security and social mobility. But beyond the city limits women still face a daunting environment full of abuse and grinding poverty.

Hunched over a small sink 24-year-old Hai Hong washes dishes for a living. She moved to Beijing more than a year ago, but her stooped shoulders and ragged clothes are a testament to a lifetime of hard work.

She grew up in a small village in Hebei Province west of the Chinese capital. She left school at 13 to work to help her parents pay for her brother's education.

Good jobs in Hebei are hard to find, especially for poor and uneducated young women like Miss Hai.

She came to Beijing looking for job security. Instead she says she is stuck making $40 a month, caught midway between China's impoverished countryside and its increasingly affluent cities.

She says she can only look on as women in the city enjoy the benefits of China's economic growth. She says they have all the opportunities. They can go to school and get the better jobs.

Her lament is achingly familiar to millions of young women and girls throughout rural china.

The universities in Beijing are full of women preparing for professional jobs. Salaries are soaring and middle class women are starting to experience the joys of a disposable income.

Cosmetics sales are skyrocketing, so are divorce rates as women discover they can leave unhappy marriages and make it on their own.

Yale University Professor Julia Zhang says China's young urban professionals enjoy unprecedented opportunities.

"Women are getting much more freedom and equal rights and a wider alternative of life choices," said Julia Zhang.

Even in the bedroom, women in the city are starting to take control. Although the government recently nixed the idea, popular demand almost led to a television program featuring frank advice about sex.

And, the official state-run Xinhua News Agency reported hundreds of volunteers lined up in September for a Beijing University study on female sexuality. Doctors are testing a new "female Viagra" designed to enhance sexual desire and pleasure.

But for rural women like Hai Hong, sexual liberation and economic independence remain a world away.

Outside of the cities women are still part of a deeply conservative Confucian culture. Boys are valued over girls who are typically relegated to doing household chores or working for pennies on local farms.

Arizona State University professor, Robin Haar, spent a year observing women's rights in China. She says girls growing up in the countryside are treated like virtual second-class citizens.

"They are probably going to face a lot of emotional, physical and even sexual abuses,said Robin Haar. "And they are probably going to be married off near to that age, around 16 to 18- years-old."

Once they get married the young women are expected to move in with their husband's family. Professor Haar says mothers-in-law frequently abuse the new brides, both physically and emotionally.

The All China Women's Federation - a research and activist group - estimates about 30 percent of rural women experience family violence. Ms. Haar says women she's worked with think it is probably much higher, up to 60 or 70 percent.

For many, the thought is simply too much to bear. China is the only country in the world with a higher suicide rate for women than for men. Government officials say three quarters of the 300,000 annual suicides occur in the countryside.

Robin Haar says many women - literally - would rather die than accept a lifetime of poverty and abuse.

"It is sort of their last resort of escaping what is just an oppressive life," she said. "They see their only option as suicide."

Authorities in Beijing promise they are improving the lives of the country's rural poor and women in particular. But there are few indications that rural life is getting any easier.

Peasants are flooding China's cities looking for better jobs. But for Hai Hong life in the city is a far cry from what she expected.

She says it is better in Beijing than in the country, though. She won't go home, but one day she says she would like to go back to school.