Addressing the Gender Gap in Taiwan
By Patricia Cumbie, Communications Manager
June 17th, 2020
Darice Chang is an American expat currently living in Taiwan, an island of 24 million people in east Asia. During a recent Skype interview we talked about how they became a human rights activist, what it’s like to live in Taiwan during the age of the coronavirus, being a domestic violence survivor, and the impact that female leadership–from President Tsai Ing Wen on down–has on Taiwan culturally.
Although Darice lived most of their life in the U.S. in Minnesota growing up, they had visited Asia frequently because their parents are Taiwanese. They were taught how to read, write and speak Chinese before they learned English. Darice moved to Taiwan in 2011 and got to know the culture from a different perspective as a non-binary activist and a full-time resident living there.
It was storytelling that led to a deeper desire to advocate for the rights of women. “I’d been volunteering at a jail for women in Taiwan, leading a group of HIV-positive and women with addictions in mindfulness and meditation. It was the most difficult ward. I heard their stories about the economic hardships they faced.” It spurred Darice’s involvement with the women’s movement in Taiwan, becoming an advocacy journalist and writing about the ways gender bias had held back the most vulnerable.
A self-described ‘tomboy’ in their youth, Darice also found that taking part in the Miss Taiwanese American Pageant was a surprising and unexpected political awakening. “During the pageant we talked a lot about Taiwan-American relations and what that means.” It turned out to be a deep dive into Taiwan’s relationship with the world through China, Japan and the U.S. Despite being a founding member of the U.N Taiwan does not hold a seat, losing it to China in 1971. It also does not have a say in the WHO, a major disadvantage during the SARS crisis of 2003, as well as the current pandemic.
Darice explained that in the 1940s Nationalist Chinese had retreated to Taiwan, and founded the country in 1945 as the Republic of China (ROC). At the time, Taiwan was an ambiguous Japanese colony that had clatheyd with different Chinese dynasties that had also claimed the island. There was also local resistance from the indigenous people living there. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), also known today as mainland China, went through Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and to this day will not recognize the ROC as an independent nation. This history still informs the daily lives and politics of the people who live in Taiwan. “There are so many factions, so many agendas.” Yet they had managed to elect their first woman president.
Taiwan’s Women Leadership
Tsai Ing Wen has been Taiwan’s president since 2016 (winning reelection last year), and Darice said they value their progressive agenda, having recently passed a same-sex marriage law, and is pushing for reparations for the indigenous people. Tsai Ing Wen is appreciated as a unifying figure in a country with complex politics. “A lot of young people support her.”
On a personal level, Darice finds Ing-Wen charming, a refreshing and real person, someone who also embraces a “cat lady” persona whose three cats who are often featured on Ing-Wen’s active social media feed. You can run a country and love cats too!
As a world leader, Tsai Ing Wen, a former academic and lawyer, has dedicated herself to changing the culture for women and the overall political landscape of their country. Despite all the strides made by female leadership, Taiwan is still deeply patriarchal.
“Even with a strong feminist political movement, Taiwan is not as strong socially. There’s still a culture of what ‘women should do.’” Those shoulds include sustaining hetero-normative relationships, caretaking the young and old, and having children. Even though 42% of Taiwan’s political offices are held by women, every woman politician has to battle sexist assumptions and judgement. Darice said conservative groups and male politicians are quick to be condescending and outspoken in their patriarchal view that women should give home and family priority over politics.
Changing that dynamic has become Darice’s work and purpose by supporting them and different activist groups with getting their issues international attention. “It’s important to get international attention on these issues and prioritize them. In Taiwan it took the Women’s March three years to get local Chinese language media coverage.”
Feminism and Safety in the Time of COVID-19
Darice is passionate about many things, but what tops of the list is breaking silence and removing the stigma of being a feminist in a socially conservative society. “There’s this weird complacency that because we have a woman president and politicians that women’s rights are no longer an issue. There’s a gender wage gap here, women’s participation in STEM is low, there’s no social safety net, no maternity leave. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”
Darice also experienced this firsthand. As a survivor of intimate partner violence they found it challenging to find a place to stay safe, especially now because of the lockdown due to the virus. Although Taiwan has effectively kept the coronavirus spread low by locking down the country to travelers, people are also practicing intense social distancing. Friends who may have taken them in were not able to. They felt lucky to find a short-term rental apartment. “There’s also a lot of shame in leaving a partner for an abusive situation. The culture is averse and people want to save face. It’s difficult to get help in an anonymous way.”
Darice said these attitudes end up leaving womxn with limited options–something they saw impacting the women in prison–how stigma is a powerful force for social and economic control. Taiwan has work to do to close these gender gaps, and the impact of COVID-19 has shown a spotlight on many gender issues, not the least of which is economic empowerment that sustains a woman’s ability to live free from violence.
Darice is also working as part of a production team on a documentary that takes viewers on a real-time journey through the island nation’s rapid-fire response to the Covid-19 outbreak. From the first whispers of a new contagious disease in Wuhan, China, leaking out through online message boards, to Taiwan’s quick adoption of travel bans, PPE production, and rolling out of contact tracing technology and other timely and useful apps, this video documentary examines the political, cultural, and technological angles of the way in which Taiwan, in spite of its proximity to China and the many thousands of Taiwanese who make their living there, managed to contain the outbreak of coronavirus even without being a member of the WHO and despite the fact that the country is without official diplomatic recognition by much of the world. Featuring interviews with survivors, planners, and officials, Taiwan Can Help presents the first ever comprehensive outline of what Taiwan did right, and how the world might learn from Taiwan’s response to one of the defining events of the 21st century.
Thanks to the efforts of womxn like Darice who use their voice and influence, things are changing in Taiwan and globally because they are committed and “very vocal.”