Former law school classmates can’t understand why Guo Jianmei chose to forgo a higher-paying career to become a public interest lawyer, Guo said according to translator Ashley Nyquist.
But Guo, director of Beijing University’s Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services, said Friday her work is rewarding in a much different sense.
‘People think I’m crazy,’ Guo told about 25 people at a discussion on women’s rights in China organized by the Harvard Kennedy School China Caucus.
The Center was established in 1995 and has since handled over 2,000 cases pertaining to women’s rights and given free consultations to more than 70,000 others. Common cases include rape, domestic violence, land ownership rights for rural women, gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.
‘In China these problems tend to be ignored, especially in impoverished and non-urban communities,’ Guo said.
Guo said she was frustrated with the status of women in China, where they are ‘treated like possessions’ in a male-dominated culture.
When she started the Center, she was not optimistic about the position of women, Guo admitted. Since then, Guo, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, has argued for retirement equality and reproductive rights, published eight books and founded Women’s Watch-China, a searchable database, policy center and women’s rights observer network.
Guo said her passion for public interest law stems from her background. Growing up in the countryside in Henan Province, she routinely saw the effects of poverty and the violation of women’s rights, Guo said. Her experiences stayed with her during her time at Beijing University, where she said she was motivated to act on her ideals.
‘There’s a natural sympathy in my bones,’ she said.
Despite all of her achievements since then, there is still a long way to go before her goals of equality will be realized, Guo said.
‘I hope the situation will improve,’ she said, noting there is an emerging generation of public interest lawyers.
Chang Hongxing, a graduate student in the Kennedy School and a co-chair of the China Caucus, said she was touched by Guo’s presentation and inspired to learn about the work she has done.
‘It is not an easy job but a very meaningful one,’ she said. ‘[Guo] has the wisdom and strong commitment to do it well.’
Sun Zhixiang, a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, said she has had first-hand experience with some of the problems Guo described. As a lawyer in China for 20 years, Sun said she found it difficult to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field.
‘It would be better if we were treated as equals,’ she said.
Sun, a commercial lawyer who specializes in corporate law, said she gleaned a lot of new information from the discussion.
‘Although I’m also a lawyer, I’ve never touched this area in my career before,’ she said. ‘I respect her work after hearing her story.’