Following is the speech by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mrs Anson Chan, at Helena May's International Women's Day Dinner today (March 8):
Mrs Hubbard, Mrs Cox, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
First of all, Mrs Hubbard, thank you very much for your kind introduction. I have passed by this building every day of my life for the past twenty-odd years on my way to my office in the Central Government Offices. But I have to confess I have not as yet stepped inside this building. So I am doubly pleased to be here with you this evening to join you all in celebrating this important occasion - International Women's Day - which is being marked in different ways throughout the world today.
Women have come a long way in the two centuries since Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice wrote: "A lady's imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment". Indeed, I would like to think an advertisement that appeared in the Ladies Home Journal in 1957 was a more accurate portrayal. It read something like this - "Women are quite unlike men. Women have higher voices, longer hair, smaller waistlines, daintier feet and prettier hands. They also invariably have the upper hand."
The punchline may be slightly exaggerated, but it does reflect our progress since the time the suffragettes first chained themselves to the railings outside the British Prime Minister's front door, that was, in 1908 in their fight for the right to vote. Of course, International Women's Day commemorates much more than securing voting rights. It recognises the long struggle of women over many, many decades for equality, justice, peace and development.
In its own small way, The Helena May has charted that progress, playing its part in promoting the interests of women. From the provider of a modest hostel for young women who began to travel after discovering their "independence" in the wake of the suffragette movement, to an organisation today which offers a wide range of activities, The Helena May is in itself a manifestation of how far we have come in pursuing the interests and status of women as free and worthwhile individuals. And I would like here to congratulate The Helena May for the interesting MARCHART programme that culminates with this dinner tonight. The programme not only focuses on the achievements of Hong Kong women in the creative arts, but also doubles as a fund-raiser for two very worthy causes, Harmony House and Growing Together.
On this special day, you would not be surprised if I touch on a subject that is close to all our hearts - the empowerment of women in Hong Kong, what impact this has had, and the possible directions for the future. First, though, I have to confess I use the word empowerment with some hesitation. Hong Kong is a mature society and I believe words like this can now be dropped from the lexicon, certainly in the context of women's rights and freedoms. Nowadays, we don't have to be 'authorised' or 'given power' to do or say anything. Unfortunately, however, we do have to strenuously protect our hard-won rights and continue to deal vigorously with acts of discrimination or abuse affecting women, whether in the workplace or at home.
Looking back, it now seems almost incongruous that an important breakthrough in developing the potential of women in Hong Kong was made just 23 years ago - in 1978. That is when we started to offer free, universal and compulsory nine-year education to all children against a cultural backdrop of putting emphasis on education for boys. From then on, girls and boys were given equal opportunity to learn and develop their potential and to compete on the basis of merit. This decision, despite coming rather late in the day, helped to improve tremendously the prospects in life for many women in Hong Kong, and change their attitude fundamentally about themselves and what they are capable of achieving.
Today, you will be pleased to learn that 53 per cent of our undergraduates are women. And that 40 per cent of our workforce, some 1.7 million people, are women. Many of them, like yourselves, are successful in their trade or professions and, just as important, are upwardly mobile.
Using the Civil Service as an example - and in some ways it is a virtual microcosm of Hong Kong society - women are now filling positions that used to be regarded as jobs for the boys - and I don't mean that in the colloquial sense! We now have firewomen and female helicopter pilots, just to name two examples. And in recent years, we have also been recruiting more women into the Administrative Officer grade, which forms the backbone of the SAR Government. Indeed, we have almost redressed the imbalance. Back in 1983, a mere 17 per cent of administrative officers were women. But by January this year, the figure grew to 47 per cent. And we are slowly taking up more of the senior positions in the civil service.
Mind you, if you had been a woman joining the civil service before 1975, your salary would have been only 75 per cent of that paid to a man, even though you were doing the same work. And for a married woman like myself, the Government actually made you resign and reapply to be employed on temporary month-to-month terms. It wasn't until late 1981 that we became entitled to the same fringe benefits as our male counterparts.
There is no denying that the momentous and positive changes for Hong Kong women have only been introduced in the recent past. But we have been making up for lost time. In 1995 we introduced a Sex Discrimination Ordinance. This was followed a year later with the establishment of the Equal Opportunities Commission, new laws on disability discrimination and the status of the family, and the extension to Hong Kong of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW for short. And then in January this year, the Women's Commission was established to promote the well-being of women as we enter the 21st century. I must add that it has given me a great deal of personal satisfaction to see this government initiative become a reality. One of the Commission's objectives will be to ensure that women's concerns are taken into account when the Government formulates its policies on a whole range of issues.
Despite all these initiatives, however, much still remains to be done. There are still women who are unable to take up paid employment because of a lack of support services. We believe it is important that different child-care services and after-school care programmes are available and accessible to working mothers. These allow them to realise their own potential at work and to take care of their family at the same time. And no one can aspire to self-fulfilment without good health. Hong Kong women have one of the longest life expectancies in the world, thanks to our comprehensive range of health care services. But even this is in need of reform.
One of the major challenges facing women in the new millennium and, indeed, the community generally, is the so-called "digital divide". Increasingly, information technology is driving almost every aspect of our lives. It has removed geographical and time barriers, created new business and learning opportunities, and has become such a significant part of our economy that women cannot afford to be left behind. That's why we have introduced a number of programmes to promote the use of IT in the community, particularly for those people who have less of an opportunity to use the new technology in their daily life.
Let me give you one example, we are organising free training and awareness programmes for the elderly, housewives and the disabled to help them take the first step into the IT world. And we will continue to sustain their interests by organising IT related activities at a neighbourhood level.
Home used to be described somewhat contemptuously by George Bernard Shaw as "the girl's prison and the women's workhouse". But in this new millennium with the explosion in information technology and the wide use of the Internet, I think "home" has taken on a whole new meaning for women. The opportunities are as limitless as our creativity, imagination and perseverance can carry us. We should use these opportunities well, not only to enrich ourselves but to address the many concerns of the new age.
And this brings me to a subject that requires women to embrace an even broader perspective of their social capabilities. As carers, women have shouldered a major role in looking after the welfare of those who are less fortunate, whether it is here or abroad. Now, in this UN-declared International Year of Volunteers, I appeal to all of you to join the growing ranks of voluntary workers, if you haven't already, whose selfless devotion to helping others is a refreshing reminder of the true values of life in this predominantly commercial city. Volunteers make a big difference to social harmony and progress, and I hope every one of us will chip in to do our bit. After all, social progress is the best guarantee of the interests of all, not least women.
Before I conclude, let me say a word about the situation in the Mainland. First, some comparative statistics. Mainland China has a total population of 12.6 billion of which 48.5 per cent are women, compared with 49.7 per cent in Hong Kong. Life expectancy for female is 73.33 years compared with 82.4 years for Hong Kong women. Literacy amongst women in the Mainland is 72.7 per cent compared with 88 per cent in Hong Kong whilst that for males is 89.9 per cent in the mainland and 94.2 per cent in Hong Kong. Clearly the first problem to tackle in achieving equality of the sexes in the Mainland is to improve educational opportunities for women. Only then, can women have a genuine choice in life. Continued economic growth will also benefit women particularly in improving employment prospects. What is equally important is to educate the general public, more particularly the rural population, so that women's true worth and capabilities can be recognized and accepted as equal to men's. I believe there is a great deal that we can share with our sister counterparts in the mainland and I believe also we should encourage more exchanges.
Finally, I would like once again to congratulate The Helena May on the excellent job you have done over the past 80-plus years in promoting women's interests in Hong Kong. I wish you every success in the future. As you all know, I will retire from the civil service at the end of next month, but that doesn't mean I will disappear from the face of this earth. I intend to remain an interested, committed and engaged citizen of both Hong Kong and China. I will continue to do what I can to further the cause of Hong Kong - and especially its women!
Thank you very much.
End/Thursday, March 8, 2001