China’s New Domestic Violence Law: Progress or Posturing?

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NANJING — Women’s rights advocates in China recently gained a victory in the long battle to support victims of domestic violence. China’s first-ever national law against domestic violence went into effect on March 1, 2016. Before March 1, there was little legal recourse for victims of domestic violence. In 2001, the 1980 Second Marriage Law was amended to officially ban domestic violence, called on local committees to intervene in abuse and legalized divorce on the grounds of domestic violence. However, the amendment left gaping holes, which the Domestic Violence Law strives to fill. The new law defines domestic violence as physical and psychological violence between family members, including beating, verbal abuse, and intimidation. It also includes several prominent changes.

First, it allows for victims to seek personal safety protection orders (essentially a restraining order), which could help victims quickly extract themselves from life-threatening situations. Second, it calls for more education on domestic violence through the media and schools, although it is unclear what form this education should take. Third, it calls for legal organizations to provide aid to victims, and for courts to wave litigation fees. This provision is especially important because physical and verbal abuse is often coupled with financial control. Victims may not have access to funds, so waving or heavily subsidizing legal fees could make it easier for victims to bring their case to the legal system. Lastly, it expands the definition of domestic violence to include people living together who are not related by blood or by law, which could help cohabitating couples and LGBTQ+ couples.

Domestic violence, particularly intimate partner violence, is a pressing issue in China with women suffering the brunt of abuse. Exactly how many women experience domestic violence is unknown, but the All-China Women’s Federation estimates that 1 in 4 married women are physically abused by their partner. Unfortunately, this figure is likely higher because it does not include other forms of abuse, namely verbal and sexual abuse, and because domestic abuse often goes unreported due to shame and fear of retaliation. In a 2013 study by the United Nations on violence against women in Asia, 51.5 percent of married men in the China sample reported ever committing physical or sexual violence, or both.

Source: SBS News Australia, Creative Commons

Despite the frequency of abuse, victims of domestic violence have precious few resources and it remains to be seen if the new law will have an effect in practice. For example, there are very few domestic violence shelters in China, even in the biggest cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Shelters rarely stay open for long because so few women use them, though lack of usage is not due to lack of need. At some shelters, the police require women to register their stay and obtain an official permit, which is a lengthy process and makes it easier for their abusers to find them. At others, residency laws mean that women can only stay for a couple of days. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that women have to overcome the culture of silence around abuse.

Mediation is the preferred method for dealing with domestic violence. It is preferred both by a woman’s family and by police, who often tell her to try and resolve the issue instead of going through with filing for divorce or reporting the crime. In the United Nation’s 2013 study, 72 percent of the men in China who admitted to raping a woman or girl faced no legal consequences. Recent cases portray a situation in which women desperately seek help, only to be confronted with insurmountable barriers. In 2009, Dong Shan Shan was beaten to death by her husband. She had gone to the police on eight separate occasions to report domestic violence, and eight times she was turned away because the police were unwilling to get involved in what they saw as a domestic affair. In 2011, Kim Lee, an American married to famed Chinese language teacher Li Yang, was brutally beaten and turned away by the police because they were sure she could talk it out with her husband. Lee only successfully petitioned for divorce after posting pictures of her bloodied face on Weibo. In February of this year, Li Hongxi was recovering from an abortion in the hospital when her husband strangled her to death during an argument. When she had mentioned physical abuse to her mother and her county’s All-China Women’s Federation director, they both told her to work it out at home. Women are under massive pressure to keep their families together, even if it means enduring violence. Police and legal institutions pressure women to stay because domestic violence is seen as a private matter, unworthy of their time.

In the absence of legal support, organizations have tried to fill the gaps. The two predominant organizations are the Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center, based in Beijing, and Beijing Zhongze Women’s Counseling and Legal Services. The Maple Counseling Center began as a domestic violence hotline in the late 1980s, and expanded their operations to include counseling. Zhongze Women’s Counseling and Legal Services opened in the 1990s after Beijing hosted the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. It provided legal services and counseling to women for a wide variety of issues from land rights to domestic violence. While anti-domestic violence organizations do exist, they toe a thin line with authorities. Zhongze Women’s Counseling and Legal Services, for example, was shut down by officials in February for undisclosed reasons. The tense situation between women’s rights organizations, and the dire situation of women facing violence, meant that the new Domestic Violence Law came at a critical moment.

The Domestic Violence Law represents a victory for women’s rights advocates, but it remains to be seen whether the law will have any practical impact. There is no data on how many personal safety protection orders have been requested or granted, and the law does not clarify how schools and media should go about educating citizens about domestic violence. There is still no consensus on what the punishment for domestic violence should be, which leads to a wide variation in sentencing. The most glaring exception is that the Domestic Violence Law does not include sexual violence under its definition of domestic violence. There is not a single law regarding marital rape, and in effect, marital rape is not illegal. The new law is certainly a step in the right direction, but its vagueness and loopholes combined with the stigma surrounding domestic violence mean it is unlikely the law will have much immediate impact. Laws alone cannot fix societal issues, especially when they are difficult to enforce. The Domestic Violence Law gave hope to women’s rights activists and represented a turning point in government policy, but there is still much work to be done.

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