One thing that has long confounded me is how cultures will fiercely hold on to traditional practices even when they’re extremely abusive to children. We see that in the United States and around the world. But here’s the good news: Child advocates can reverse harmful trends. They just have to be willing to educate people from those cultures and work behind the scenes.
This task might seem daunting, but I can give you an example of when such an approach worked to end one of longest and most abusive childrearing practices of all time—the binding of girls’ feet in China.
An Abusive Practice
The practice of Chinese foot-binding started around the 10th century and became well ingrained in Chinese culture, particularly in the middle and upper classes. Families bound the feet of their young daughters ultimately for social gain, as girls with bound feet were much more eligible for marriage than those whose feet had not been bound. In fact, the smaller the feet, the better chances were that a girl could marry into a prominent family.
The process of foot-binding was excruciatingly painful and debilitating. Girls as young as three years old had their feet bound. The goal was to make the feet as small as possible—the ideal length being three inches. To accomplish this, each foot was wrapped in such a way that it was made into a sort of fist. Multiple bones were broken as the foot was forced to form a high, unnatural arch. With the feet folded into themselves, they were impossible to keep clean and smelled terrible. Girls suffered ulcerations, gangrene, loss of toes, and death due to infection. Walking on bound feet was extremely difficult and led to long-term back problems.
Remarkably, however, once advocates outside of China began making a concerted effort to end it, the practice came to an end relatively quickly. The process was aided by the current economic and cultural changes going on in China as it began allowing more outsiders into the country. Some of those outsiders were European Christian missionaries, including females who wanted to see Chinese women gain more autonomy and families stop binding their daughters’ feet.
One notable missionary was Rev. John Mcgowan of the non-denominational Protestant London Missionary Society. In 1875, he and his wife called a meeting of women in China and convinced nine of them to sign a pledge opposing foot-binding. (Foot-binding was done almost exclusively by women.) The gathering marked the beginning of what would become the Quit-Foot-Binding Society, an organization largely made up of mothers who committed to allowing their daughters to go unbound.
McGowan and other missionaries also appealed to China’s elite, scholars known as the literati, to publicly oppose foot-binding. The missionaries’ justification—that foot-binding made China appear backward in the eyes of the rest of the world—resonated with the literati who wrote essays that described the practice as shameful and cruel. One of those scholars was Kang Youwei who had been distressed by the pain his female relatives had undergone when their feet were bound. He allowed his own daughters’ feet to be left natural and, in 1898, sent a memorandum to the Chinese emperor in which he tried to shame the leader into opposing the practice. Kang wrote, “There is nothing which makes us objects of ridicule so much as foot-binding.”
Meanwhile, organizations like the Quit-Foot-Binding Society helped shift public opinion by establishing a justification for allowing girls’ feet to be left natural. These women not only pledged not to bind their daughters’ feet, they also forbade their sons to marry women with bound feet. At the same time, the literati sought only wives with unbound feet. This was a crucial shift, because now families had an incentive to allow their daughters’ feet to be left natural—it made them more eligible for marriage, while girls with bound feet were becoming more and more stigmatized. No longer were communities holding “small foot” contests that glorified foot-binding; now they were holding public rallies in which women burned their foot wrappings and sang “letting-feet-out” songs.
Finally, the Chinese Nationalist Government banned the practice in 1911. A tradition that had been practiced for nearly a millennium largely came to an end within one generation.
Learning from the End of an Abusive Practice
How can child advocates who want to see an end to religious child maltreatment learn from what took place in China? Let’s first boil down the process. As I see it, the movement to end foot-binding had three main components:
- It was catalyzed by advocates who came from outside the country and worked behind the scenes;
- advocates formed coalitions both with prominent leaders (the literati) and representatives of perpetrators (mothers) within China, allowing them to be the “face” of the movement; and
- the culture saw a benefit for ending the practice of foot-binding. (Girls with natural feet had become more eligible for marriage than girls with bound feet.)
Child advocates today wishing to end RCM should adopt a similar three-pronged approach:
- They should quietly reach out to religious leaders and congregants (particularly parents) and convince them to be a part of a “child-friendly faith” movement and speak out publicly about the need for change;
- advocates should offer rigorous curricula for faith communities that teach them about child development, maltreatment, and mandatory reporting, and how to develop effective child protection policies; and
- they should offer an incentive to religious organizations that complete those programs by designating them as Child-Friendly Faith Communities and provide marketing support, promoting them as role models in child protection.
Motivation for Change
Why would faith communities sign up for these educational programs? Actually, there are numerous benefits for those that learn about RCM and other child-related issues. For one, they can feel confident that they are fulfilling children’s needs in ways that are aligned with current, healthy child development models, as well as be more prepared should a case of abuse or neglect arise.
Second, as they gain recognition for having taken important steps to learn about fulfilling children’s needs, they can grow their congregations. Many individuals are wary of joining a place of worship because they fear that those communities don’t understand much about children’s needs. Many people themselves grew up as victims of RCM or they have simply read too many news stories about child abuse scandals in religious organizations. Churches, synagogues, and mosques that are designated as Child-Friendly Faith Communities can attract many new congregants, including those who have been distrustful of religious organizations.
But those who reap the greatest rewards of such a movement are children, whose faith communities will perceive them in a positive light and be more in tune with their emotional needs.
To learn more about religious child maltreatment and Chinese foot-binding, please refer to the following sources:
Appiah, Kwame Anthony, “The Art of Social Change,” The New York Times Magazine, October 22, 2010.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 1996).
Foreman, Amanda, “Why foot-binding persisted in China for a millennium,” Smithsonian Magazine, February, 2012.
Heimlich, Janet, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment (Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York, 2011).
Montlake, Simon, “Bound by History,” The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2009.
© 2015 Child-Friendly Faith Project. All rights reserved.