China / Society

A stepping stone or a missed opportunity?

By Cao Yin (China Daily) Updated: 2014-12-08 07:39

Critics say a draft law to combat abuse within families fails to address the main issues, and offers little protection for victims, as Cao Yin reports.

A stepping stone or a missed opportunity?

Female volunteers in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, use posters to build a "house" to show their opposition to violence against women. Traditonally, domestic abuse has been a taboo subject in China. Shi Jianxue / for China Daily

Chen Wei was disappointed when she read the draft of China's first proposed law against domestic violence.

"The definition of domestic violence and the measures to protect victims in the draft are vague and limited. They won't help to reduce abuse within the family and prevent people, especially women, from being attacked," said Chen, a lawyer who specializes in resolving marital disputes.

According to Chen's reading of the draft, the proposed law - the first in China specifically designed to tackle the issue of domestic abuse doesn't provide enough protection or legal aid for victims. The draft was put before the State Council, China's Cabinet, at the end of November and is the subject of public consultation this month.

She used two recent cases as examples. "In the first, one of my clients was seriously abused by her husband, who completely ignored her afterward and refused to discuss the matter. In the other case, the violence happened between lovers who live together but have no formal marriage certificate," she said.

The draft defines domestic violence as physical and psychological damage between family members, such as couples, parents and children, and close relatives, "so the 'silent resistance' (a refusal to acknowledge an offense has occurred and a lack of engagement with the victim) in the first case isn't addressed in the draft. In the second case, the people aren't officially married, so the law doesn't apply to their relationship," she said.

Domestic violence has long been a taboo subject in China, where family conflicts are regarded as embarrassing, private matters.

Despite this cultural denial, however, abuse does exist. A 2010 survey conducted by the All-China Women's Federation and the National Bureau of Statistics said 33.5 percent of girls and 52.9 percent of boys polled had been subjected to "physical punishments" by their parents over the 12-month period covered by the survey.

A report by China Central Television cited a different survey that concluded that more than 13 percent of Chinese seniors have been abused by family members.

Yao Yue, of the China Women's Development Foundation, said the draft must stress equality of the sexes and emphasize the major role that psychological assistance can play.

"A law should not just focus on rights, duties, and punishments, but also on a number of auxiliary measures. After all, what we need is a comprehensive and practical law, not the one that's hard to enforce," she said.

Refusal to engage

Zhang Li (not her real name) turned to Chen after her husband assaulted her.

"There were bruises on my body after he attacked me, but he never apologized. Instead, he was cold hearted and usually remained silent when I tried to talk with him," Zhang, a government officer in Beijing, said.

"What's worse, after the attack, my husband moved out so I didn't know where he was living, and he refused to take my calls," the 33-year-old said, adding that her husband's refusal to engage caused her great mental anguish and fear.

"Before the assault, I had no idea about domestic violence. When I wanted to protect myself legally, I read the draft, but I found it weak in terms of protection," she said. Zhang now believes the government should educate newlyweds in the prevention of domestic abuse, and highlight the relevant legal articles that define it.

Chen said that under China's Marriage Law, domestic violence is only defined as such if it happens at least three times, but the mental anguish caused by a refusal to communicate isn't recognized as abuse. That situation hasn't been improved in the draft.

"I have to tell my client that it's hard to define what she suffered as domestic violence under the current law, and after reading the draft law, I'm unable to offer her more hope," Chen said, with disappointment.

Chen works on about 60 marriage-related cases every year, and more than 60 percent of them relate to "cold violence" and verbal attacks between family members.

"Most victims of verbal violence are men. Their wives or girlfriends criticize and shout at them day and night," she said, adding that this sort of nonviolent abuse is difficult to prove and isn't regulated by the current laws.

Chen recalled a woman who consulted her after her boyfriend assaulted her.

"The client didn't want to end the relationship, but neither did she want to suffer the violence. However, our law doesn't protect relationships outside of formal marriage," she said, adding that the man would probably only face administrative punishments, such as temporary detention at a police station or a fine, if the woman called the police.

Chen urged a clause in the draft law to protect people in nonmarital relationships "because the number of such cases is rising as society becomes more open."

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