Notes from the Field

Breaking Pattern of Silence over Domestic Violence in China

October 30, 2013

Traditionally in China, domestic violence has been considered a private issue that should be kept within the household, with any outside interventions left at the doorstep. Despite efforts by the authorities and women’s rights groups to raise public awareness of the issue, domestic violence has long been absent from public or media discourse, and most victims of domestic violence remain silent. However, recent events and advocacy efforts are starting to shake this pattern of silence.

Residences in Chinese town

Data suggests that nearly one in every four women in China experiences domestic violence in her life in the forms of verbal abuse, assault and battery, restriction of personal liberty, economic control, or marital rape. Rural women are two times more likely to suffer physical assaults. Photo/Flickr user azotesdivinos

In late 2011, Kim Lee, an American woman, publicized her divorce from her celebrity Chinese husband and spoke out against the domestic violence epidemic in China, bringing it to the center of media and public attention. While Lee’s case has encouraged many abused women to seek legal recourse and has raised public awareness of domestic violence, her experience and victory are not typical of the processes and outcome experienced by many Chinese women who seek legal action. In a lesser-known case, Li Jianting, a woman from Shandong Province, sued her husband for personal injury in 2003 after he severely beat her in front of their young son. It wasn’t until 2010 that Li Jianting received a positive verdict for her case. During the six and half years of arduous legal proceedings, her case was rejected repeatedly by the courts due to insufficient evidence collection and verification; and she was periodically separated from her son.

Data released in October 2013 by a Beijing court indicate that less than 20 percent of domestic violence claims brought forth are recognized by the courts, partly due to similar difficulties of evidence collection and verification. Statistics from other provinces such as Guangdong and Shandong indicate even lower rates, ranging from 2-15 percent.

The latest comprehensive data on domestic violence in China was disclosed by the All China Women’s Federation in late 2011, and suggests that nearly one in every four women in China experiences domestic violence in her life in the forms of verbal abuse, assault and battery, restriction of personal liberty, economic control, or marital rape. Rural women are two times more likely to suffer physical assaults. Several surveys conducted in women’s prisons also revealed significant correlation between domestic violence and crimes committed by women. For instance, a 2005 survey conducted in women’s prisons in Liaoning Province showed that over 50 percent of women who committed crimes had suffered from domestic violence in the past.

Over the past decade, Chinese authorities have been gradually improving the legislative framework to support survivors of domestic abuse, but challenges remain. The term ”domestic violence” did not appear in Chinese law until 2001 when the amended Marriage Law of China included, for the first time ever, an article prohibiting it. However, this new article does not provide any specific guidance on litigation and does not include an official definition of ”domestic violence.”  The lack of concrete procedures for the collection of evidence to verify ”constant and frequent” domestic abuse adds another layer of difficulty for litigation. However, progress is being made in the legislative sphere as the issue of domestic violence slowly gains more public and media attention. In July 2011, the All China Women’s Federation submitted the first-ever draft of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law to the National People’s Congress (NPC), which NPC included in its 2013 legislative agenda for debate and consideration after conducting research on the necessity and feasibility of this law. In the meantime, the government has launched a series of reform projects and policy experiments to enhance the capacity of legal institutions and empower justice sector stakeholders to intervene in and reduce domestic violence, such as the piloting of the orders of protection (also known as ”restraining orders”) for survivors of domestic violence by over 200 local courts across the country.

While developing stronger legislation is essential, it will be equally important to strengthen community-level awareness and collective responses to incidences of domestic violence. Currently, responsiveness and coordination on the part of relevant community-based stakeholders is weak. For example, domestic violence was not incorporated into the official scope of police interventions until 2008, and so far, police interventions have been ineffective in identifying such abuse and preventing it from leading to further tragedies. In a widely known incident in 2009, one victim called the police eight times before she was beaten to death by her husband. Many community stakeholders such as hospitals, civil affairs departments, resident committees, and the police have reported encountering cases of domestic violence in their everyday work, but there are currently no effective referral protocols or communication mechanisms to allow for a coordinated response.

Chinese government authorities have started to pilot projects that explore effective multi-sectoral domestic violence prevention and response models. Building on these efforts, The Asia Foundation is supporting project activities in Sichuan Province to build capacity of existing community-based women’s homes established by the authorities as a platform for providing direct services such as anti-domestic violence public education and counseling for survivors. The project in Sichuan also aims to engage other stakeholders (e.g., residents’ committees, police, hospitals, and shelters) to establish a case referral and transfer mechanism to support survivors more effectively. Another approach being explored by some local authorities and NGOs involves tasking social workers who are specially trained in domestic violence issues to work at the courts, women’s federations, and residents’ committees. Though the number of social workers who are trained specifically on these issues is very small, they have proven to be an important resource for survivors who come to them for help. They have also helped to improve the quality of services provided by their host institutions.

Thousands of abused women could have lived different and safer lives if more developed legislative and community support systems were in place. However, positive progress is slowly taking place. During the six and half years Li Jianting fought for justice, she created a website to support other Chinese women who are rebuilding their lives free of violence. The website shares Li’s personal experiences with domestic abuse, discloses details regarding her case, and disseminates information on current laws, provisions, and the latest reforms. She is only one of many who are working to increase awareness among the authorities and the public of domestic violence and gender equality. It is promising to see that survivors are increasingly making their voices heard and are encouraging each other to seek justice as well as the support of their communities in the process of rebuilding their lives.

Chen Tingting is a program associate for The Asia Foundation in Beijing. She can be reached at chentingting@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

2 comments on this post:

  1. Hydic Zhang:

    This article initiated the effective way to protect victims in women should be government intervention and victims response .

  2. Michael:

    From this article it would appear that women are the only victims of domestic violence. As a male victim I know this is not true.

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