Safeguarding Children Against Domestic Violence in China
March 1, 2017
On the eve of this year’s Chinese New Year, 17-year-old Xiao Bao (alias used in the media) killed himself at home in a village in Yunnan Province, leaving a letter to tell how much he had suffered for years from neglect and abuse by his father. Xiao Bao’s parents made a living in the capital city of Yunnan Province, and lived there with his three other siblings. As the oldest child of the family, Xiao Bao was left behind and raised by his grandparents in their rural home, while his parents visited home only once a year.
The tragedy of Xiao Bao reignited nationwide attention on China’s rural “left-behind” children, who are particularly vulnerable to neglect and abuse by parents or temporary caregivers due to complex economic, familial, and societal factors. According to official statistics, in 2016, China had an estimated 9 million rural “left-behind” children under 16 years old. Over 90 percent of all officially registered “left-behind” children have limited or no parental care. A 2013 study in Anhui Province, one of the biggest origination areas for migrant laborers in China, found that over 70 percent of “left-behind” children surveyed had experienced neglect by their temporary caregivers, and over half had experienced physical abuse.
While a greater spotlight has been shone on those “left-behind” children, children in urban centers also face high rates of abuse. A survey in Guangzhou, one of China’s most developed cities, found that over 27 percent of the 4,582 children surveyed between 11-17 years old had been physically abused by parents at least once in the last six months. Another study in the capital city Changsha of Hunan Province indicated an even higher prevalence rate of physical abuse by parents at 62.4 percent.
Despite the increasing data available and the media coverage surrounding child abuse cases, most Chinese believe that children in China are “too precious” to be abused, especially by their parents. For over three decades, each married couple was allowed to have only one child, until the country’s “one-child policy” was abolished in 2016. Today, the “spoiled child syndrome” seems to be of much higher concern than child abuse in Chinese society.
However, statistics reveal a rather different picture. According to the All-China Women’s Federation, more than 43 percent of children between 10-17 years old were abused by one or both parents in the form of corporal punishment or verbal and/or psychological abuses. According to study from a Chinese NGO, of 697 cases of child abuse disclosed in the media between 2008 and 2013, the majority (nearly 75 percent) were committed by biological parents, while just 10 percent were committed by adoptive or step-parents. The same study also showed that abuse of a child during spousal or familial conflicts represents over 25 percent of these cases.
The issue of parental child abuse is often overlooked in China because parents exercise a high level of discretion in the treatment and disciplining of their children. While corporal punishment in schools is specifically banned by China’s Law on the Protection of Minors and the Compulsory Education Law, it continues to be considered an acceptable behavior when exercised by a parent. A 2014 survey in Guangzhou City revealed that over 60 percent of adults do not think that a parent or a guardian beating a child should be considered domestic violence.
In recent years, the government has begun to recognize this as a national crisis. In 2016, the government announced a series of actions to improve social security, safety, and psychological issues facing rural “left-behind” children. China’s first-ever Anti-Domestic Violence Law, which became effective in March 2016, grants priority protection to children subject to domestic violence by various measures, including mandatory reporting of cases against children, and additional assistance on access to sheltering services and restraining order requests for child victims. China’s justice system has also been increasingly supportive of revoking custody of abusive guardians. In a pilot city in Central China, The Asia Foundation is supporting local cross-agency collaboration efforts to address child abuse perpetrated by parents and caregivers. The local cross-agency taskforce was able to request a restraining order from the local court against an abusive mother who is a drug user, and arranged foster care for the child once the custody was taken over by the local civil affairs bureau.
However, challenges in safeguarding vulnerable children remain, including the difficulty in uncovering child abuse cases that occur in the home. Compared to adults who suffer from domestic violence, children are even less capable of breaking the silence and seeking help on their own. Child protection professionals face significant challenges in efficient screening of high-risk children and households, without which early intervention would not be possible.
In China, as elsewhere, childhood experience of abuses in the home is found to have negative psychological and behavioral impact on adults, including the increased risk of becoming either an abuser of or a victim of violence in their adulthoods. On the anniversary of the adoption of China’s Anti-Domestic Violence Law, the country needs a cry for public campaigns against child abuse, not only for the sake of a child’s safety, but for a future generation of healthy and happy citizens.
Chen Tingting is The Asia Foundation’s program officer for women’s empowerment in China, and Lv Pu is a program assistant there. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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Violence justified by child discipline should not be acceptable. Thank you for being an active voice speaking out about this issue. Unfortunately, progress in China will be slow and strenuous, as this disciplinarian culture is continually perpetuated generation after generation.