ROME – Longtime women’s rights activist Reggie Littlejohn, known for opposing selective abortions in China targeting females, is speaking out for another group of women she says are among the most destitute in the nation’s aging population: Widows.

“These women are what I would call the unseen victims of the one-child policy,” Littlejohn said in an interview with Crux, adding, “people don’t realize the extent to which the one-child policy completely decimated the family structure of China.”

Littlejohn, a Catholic who founded the “Women’s Rights Without Frontiers” organization to fight forced abortion and gendercide in China, launched a new “Save a Widow” project to help abandoned elderly women make ends meet and to give them a sense of purpose.

A widow receiving assistance from the Women’s Rights Without Frontiers “Save a Widow” project. (Credit: Courtesy of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.)

According to statistics from the U.S. State Department, some 590 women a day kill themselves in China, and many others attempt suicide. In the countryside, three times more women kill themselves as men.

In China, senior suicide rates have risen 500 percent over the past 20 years, Littlejohn said, explaining that this spike is a direct result of the Chinese government’s one-child, and now two-child, policy.

“Something else that’s really disturbing is studies have shown that not only are seniors committing suicide, but this is becoming normalized and an almost expected or honorable way to go,” she said. “There’s almost a pressure on seniors to commit suicide.”

Most of these elderly persons live in rural areas of China, where past tradition was that a couple would have several children, and each of those children would go on to have several children, meaning that when the couple became elderly, their extended family could care for them, since the nation does not have any equivalent to the U.S. Social Security program.

What has happened now, Littlejohn said, is that since couples are having so few children, they are left to care not only for their own child but their parents and grandparents, creating serious economic strain.

“They just can’t support all those parents and grandparents,” Littlejohn said, noting that because of this and increased urbanization in China, many elderly people simply are being abandoned. Widows often have a harder time, she said, since they were raising children instead of working, while widowers are usually in a better position since they had the jobs.

“So all these elderly women are just abandoned by their families and completely destitute and really feel that they have no purpose in living,” she said.

Illustrating just how much pressure elderly in China can face, she recounted the story of one widow her organization assists who along with her husband faced pressure to kill herself when the husband became ill.

Faced with rising medical bills, the woman’s daughter-in-law chastised the couple over the amount of money being spent, telling neighbors that were the husband to die, they would be spared becoming homeless.

In addition, as a “positive example” of what elderly should do, the daughter-in-law pointed to another elderly woman who had killed herself when she found out she had breast cancer in order to save her family from paying her medical bills.

The situation has gotten so bad, she said, that the Chinese government recently promulgated a law requiring children to visit their parents. During a recent congress, the Chinese government recognized widows as being “a special category of person that has really fallen through all safety nets.”

Widows identified by the government typically get a stipend of around $20 a month, but “it’s not enough to meet their needs by a longshot,” Littlejohn said, explaining that her organization tries to provide widows with around $25 a month for basic needs – as well as a smile.

A widow being helped through the Women’s Rights Without Frontiers “Save a Widow” project. (Photo: Courtesy of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.)

Littlejohn said the widows’ project was growing so fast she had to put a halt to expansion due to a lack of resources.

Around one fifth of China’s population is elderly, she said, adding that by 2050 it is projected that a third of all Chinese will be elderly, and tens of millions of these will be widows.

“Every one of the widows in China deserves to have somebody that will be a presence in her life every month, and they all deserve to have the dignity of being able to eat every day and to eat nutritious food,” she said.

June 23 is the UN-designated International Widows Day, designed to call attention to the “poverty and injustice faced by millions of widows and their dependents.”

Littlejohn faulted the Chinese Communist Party and its one-child policy not only for the problems of forced abortion, gendercide and the abandonment of the elderly, but also for the breakdown of traditional family values in China, where families used to be large and children venerated their ancestors.

Now, the opposite is the case, she said, noting that in the past several decades, human rights in China have also deteriorated.

June 4 marks the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, consisting of a series of student-led demonstrations in Beijing that ended in a massacre when the government declared martial law and sent in the military, resulting in several hundred deaths.

According to Littlejohn, “Human rights in China now are worse than they were when the students were demonstrating in Tiananmen Square,” because back then, citizens had the right to assemble, which is now banned.

“Tiananmen Square could not have happened today,” she said, adding that increased surveillance, religious persecution and the detainment of human rights advocates have made freedom in China go backwards rather than forwards.

“There has been absolutely no progress on human rights in China since Tiananmen Square. In fact, I think things have gotten worse,” she said.

Littlejohn added her experience leads her to believe that the Vatican’s recent deal with China on the appointment of bishops has further complicated the situation.

“My perspective is that it would help everyone if that deal would be made public, because right now the Chinese government is using it to really persecute Catholics,” she said.

Since the terms of the deal have not been released, Chinese officials have been “using the secrecy to say that it authorizes things I have no doubt were never authorized by the Vatican, so I think it would be very, very helpful to the Catholics in China for that deal to be made public,” she said.

Several Marian shrines have been destroyed since the deal was struck, Littlejohn said, noting that the common excuse given by Chinese officials is that “your own pope said we should do this.”

“So far under the deal, I don’t see any benefit to the Catholics,” she said. “We need to see what this deal says to try to prevent more destruction happening in the name of the deal.”