|URUMQI, Feb. 11, 2019 -- Rizguli Haliq, a 42-year-old woman donning a brown bob and a big smile, is the star of her neighborhood.
The mother of three daughters leads what she calls a "performance team" of 20 women in Ershilidian, a small village near Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The ladies meet two to three times a week to rehearse songs and dances. In a Spring Festival gig for the villagers, the ladies sang pop songs and presented the traditional Meshrep.
"I've always loved singing and dancing, but my mother died when I was very young, and I never got the chance to learn music or dancing," she said.
Rizguli Haliq has lived in the village since she was young. Ninety percent of the total 1,300 residents are of Uygur ethnicity. "Most of the women in my village were simply housewives," she said.
Rizguli Haliq has found new confidence as she sings melodious tunes to an appreciating audience and helps fellow female villagers manage stage fright.
"What I get the most from the performance team is confidence. You see, as long as I set my mind on doing something, I can do it well," she said.
Rizguli's change is a result of a local program to ensure that the Uygur women are included, connected and empowered. She was encouraged by cadres from the Fujian Province in the east coast, who were sent as part of the "pairing assistance" program.
China held the First National Meeting on Pairing Assistance To Xinjiang in March 2010. According to the directive, 19 provinces and municipalities need to render support to 82 counties (cities) in 12 prefectures in Xinjiang and 12 divisions of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). The assistance involves funds, bringing in factories to create jobs and helping with the cultural and social development in the economic backwater.
Qiu Zhiyu, 40, is one of the cadres from Fujian. Having worked as a grassroots cultural official, he arrived in Xinjiang in 2017.
Qiu started to set up a performance team in May last year. "I did not hold much hope in the beginning. Many people did not speak Mandarin and did not understand me well. Fewer than five people showed up," he said.
Qiu found teachers to help them choreograph performances.
"They made a lot of progress in just a few months," he said. Now the team performs regularly for the public, local enterprises and tourists.
When Rizguli needs to go to rehearsals, her husband Mahmut Shadil helps her manage a grocery shop in the village -- their new family investment.
Earnings from the shop help the couple take care of their second daughter who is on medication for her mental health.
Over recent years, assistance to impoverished villages in Xinjiang has been focused on creating jobs and developing cultural programs.
Qiu said last year Fujian province invested seven million yuan (about one million dollars) to renovate 29 streets in the village and improve logistical infrastructure.
Cadres founded a farming cooperative to produce and sell naan, a staple food, and helped locals open hotels to cater to tourists from Urumqi.
Many women have found jobs in these businesses and are encouraged to set up their own businesses as Rizguli did. Kindergartens are set up near where these mothers work so that they can still find time to take care of their family.
Starting from last year, the Xinjiang regional women's federation launched a program to fund a barbershop in all villages in Hotan and Kashgar. They have given out 10,000 yuan-worth of equipment for free and provided necessary training to men and women in 2,000 villages.