BEIJING, March 7 (Xinhua) -- It is said that women hold up half the sky. For Huang Libi in southwest China, she is holding up more than her share.
With her husband away most of the year working in a city, the 48-year-old village woman takes care of her elderly mother- and father-in-law and two children, feeds nearly 100 chickens, grows more than 200 grapefruit trees, and cultivates around 2,000 square meters of cornfield and paddy fields.
"Day after day, I get up before dawn," said Huang from Longtan village in the township of Hexing in Chongqing Municipality.
During 28 years of marriage, Huang's husband returns from southeastern Fujian Province during the Spring Festival, or the Chinese Lunar New Year.
"This is all for better earnings and a brighter future for our children," Huang said.
She is not the only woman in the village that lives apart from her husband. More than 75 percent of male Longtan villagers have left for coastal cities, leaving more than 300 women behind.
Since the 1980s, rapid urbanization has led to a large number of married men in rural areas leave their homes for better payed jobs in cities.
As a result, couples are forced to live apart, with wives staying in the countryside toiling to keep their homes running.
China now has nearly 50 million left-behind women in rural areas, statistics from the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) show.
According to research conducted by the China Agricultural University, left-behind women have taken up more than 85 percent of both farm work and household chores.
But their physical and psychological well-being is being overlooked.
Farmland, for women, has become a "second battlefield" in addition to housekeeping.
For Huang, the harvest season has become "the season of affliction."
In November, when the grapefruit is ripe, the 1.5-meter tall woman has to climb up and down trees, and carry as much as 3,500 kilograms of grapefruits to the purchaser's truck.
"I'm worn out at the end of the day. But the next morning I still have to pull myself together and get back to work that seemingly can never get done," said Huang, who now suffers severe periarthritis of her shoulder due to years of heavy work.
What makes life harder for such women are feelings of loneliness and insecurity.
Qin Xiaoling in Chongqing has to take care of two teenage sons, her 63-year-old mother-in-law and grandfather, aged 91. Her husband is away in Fujian Province working on construction sites.
"I get stressed if the older relatives get sick, and then I desperately need my husband to be by my side," the 40-year-old said.
Qin said she looks forward to the day when her husband no longer has to work away from home to pay their sons' tuition fees. "But I know when that day comes, we will both be old," she said.
The result from women being left behind is a development gap between rural and urban areas, according to Tong Xin, a professor with Peking University's sociology department.
"Many rural households have sacrificed their normal family life for better earnings," Tong said.
The professor suggested the government invest in small- and medium-sized cities, where more job opportunities can be created for rural couples so they can afford a house and resettle together.
"In this way, urbanization will not hamper family life," Tong added.
In recent years, the Chinese government, along with non-governmental organizations, have made attempts to help alleviate loneliness and stress for left-behind women.
More than 220,000 support groups have been set up across the country to help such women with production, parenting and employment, and provide them with psychological counseling.
One such group in the county of Liangping has been helpful to women like Huang Libi, assisting them in grapefruit cultivation and marketing.
The ACWF also provides preferential loans to left-behind women who are willing and able to start up their own businesses.
"I hope there will be fewer women left behind. The real way out lies in the development of rural areas and resulting backflow of migrant workers," said Liu Yulan, head of the women's federation in the township of Hexing.