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Focus: Domestic violence on the rise
( 2003-09-19 09:50) (China Daily)

For Wang Shurong (not her real name), dreams of a happy marriage turned into a nightmare lasting 18 years, until her divorce in 2001. "He took pleasure in beating me," she says of her abusive ex-husband. "He would hit me anytime, anywhere. He would follow me out of the house if I tried to escape and beat me in the street."

People walk past a billboard in Beijing advocating an end to domestic violence. [newsphoto.com.cn]

The woman, who lives in a nortern China city Tianjin, is just one of millions of wives who are routinely maltreated by their husbands. And her case is far from the worst. Li Li (also a pseudonym), a primary school teacher in Shaanxi Province in northwestern China, once suffered several broken ribs merely for trying to persuade her husband to use protection when he visited prostitutes.

On the rise

In the last few years, China has seen a significant rise in domestic violence cases. In 2002 alone, the All-China Women's Federation handled 36,000 appeals for help from wives in distress, nearly 40 per cent more than in 2001. The federation has also reported that domestic violence occurs in one-third of the 267 million families in China.

In most cases, the victims are women. Domestic violence breaks up more than 100,000 families every year, accounting for 60 per cent of divorces registered across the country.

Many assume that domestic violence occurs only in poverty-stricken families, perpetrated by husbands with little or no education. But a survey by the Hongye Women's Hotline, a Beijing-based non-governmental organization (NGO), turns this perception on its head.

The survey, which covered 100 documented cases of physical abuse inflicted by men against their wives, shows that 62 per cent of the perpetrators and 35 per cent of their victims have received higher education. "It is truly alarming that physical abuse against women is spreading," says Wang Huan, a hotline volunteer.

Domestic violence against women has gained the attention of NGOs, legal experts and legislators. The Ninth Congress of the All-China Women's Federation held in August placed it high on their agenda. At the first session of the Tenth National People's Congress (NPC) in March, 10 deputies recommended revising the Law on Protecting Women's Rights and Interests to better safeguard women from domestic violence.

"Given the current circumstances, revision of the law brooks no delay," says Deputy Cao Suying of Hebei Province, who initiated the recommendation.

'Male superiority'

In late 2002, the Beijing Women's Federation conducted a survey to pinpoint the causes behind domestic violence against women. Replies from 338 legal workers in and outside of Beijing to the questionnaires indicated that the traditional concept of "male superiority" is a major culprit.

Zuo Ling, holding her daughter, was hospitalized after being beaten by family members on her husband's side on March 8 in Henan Province. Her husband's family wanted to give away the girl so that she could bear another baby, hopefully a son. Surveys indicate that the traditional concept of male superiority is a major reason for violence against women. [newsphoto.com.cn]

The experience of Wang Shurong of Tianjin is a typical case in point. She was jobless and had to depend on her husband for a living. As it happened, he had feudal ideas about women. "More often than not, women like Wang do not know how to properly protect themselves," says NPC deputy Cao Suying. "They either take their hardships lying down or resort to violence in retaliation."

Like Wang Shurong, Li Li in Shaanxi Province was often beaten by her husband for no reason. But her forbearance collapsed when, one night, she came home to find her husband sleeping with a prostitute on their bed. When her husband woke up, he began attacking her. This time, however, Li Li fought back and, in her fury, hit him on the head with a hammer. He died from the blow.

In one way or another, the old maxim of "never airing one's dirty laundry in public" still holds sway in China. Few abused women report their husbands' actions to police, for fear of bringing shame on their families and themselves. And even if they do speak up, the police are likely to recommend mediation, telling the battered women to go back home and talk things over with their husbands to attempt a reconciliation.

Legal improvements needed

Time and again, leaders of the All-China Women's Federation have called for the mass education of the public on gender equality as a way to curb domestic violence against women. They also demand improvements in China's legal system to provide still more effective protections for women.

Back in 1992, the NPC adopted the Law on Protection of Women's Rights and Interests, the first of its kind in China. Two years later, the NPC championed the Law on Protection of Mothers' and Infants' Health. The State Council, China's highest governing body, published the Regulation on Protection of Female Workers the same year. And after heated debate that involved almost all sectors of society, a new Marriage Law was adopted following revisions made in 1980 of the original law passed in the early 1950s.

Under the new law, if a couple is embroiled in a domestic dispute, the aggrieved party shall have the right to legal protection and the perpetrator or perpetrators of domestic violence shall be punished. This marked the first time that a Chinese law spelled out, in explicit terms, that domestic violence was a crime.

While all of this sounds good, Cao Suying argues that there is still much room for improvement. The NPC deputy, who doubles as chairwoman of the Hebei Provincial Federation for Women, notes that in the first place, "there are no legal provisions that define domestic violence explicitly enough". As domestic violence is often seen as "private dirty laundry", she says, judicial intervention can be hard, if not impossible, to effect. "In trying a case of domestic violence, for example, the court often finds it difficult to collect evidence and testimony."

Legal experts share her opinion. Lawyer Liu Wei notes that under China's legal system, perpetrators of domestic violence are prosecuted only with the consent of the victims. "Take wife-beating, for example," she explains. "Nothing will happen to the husband if the wife does not agree to have the case referred to the procuratorate. That's ridiculous. After a bank is robbed, do you ask the bank's consent to have the robber prosecuted?"

News ways to combat abuse

Liu Wei acted as the defence counsel for Li Li, the Shaanxi woman who was tried for killing her husband. "The prosecutor insisted that she had committed manslaughter, a crime that can result in the death sentence," she recalls. "I fought back, telling the court that my client killed her husband in self-defence and, therefore, she deserved leniency."

Michael Kaufman, an international activist on gender issues, speaks at a Beijing seminar which addressed concerns of violence against women. [newsphoto.com.cn]

After the court of first hearing sentenced Li Li to death, with a probation of two years, the lawyer appealed to a higher court on her behalf and the sentence was changed to 15 years in prison. "That was still not fair, but it was the best we could hope for," Liu Wei says.

Liu Wei is a member of the Peking University Women's centre, one of many NGOs that have sprung up in recent years to help protect women's rights and interests.

Beside these organizations, social workers and NGOs have been working hard to set up community-based anti-domestic violence (ADV) teams.

Wang Shurong in Tianjin is a beneficiary of an ADV team that operates in her neighbourhood. The team was set up in 2001 under a three-year programme jointly launched by a Beijing-based psychological counselling centre for women and the local women's federation, with financial support from the Heinrich Boell Foundation of Germany and the Ford Foundation of the United States.

The programme is intended to bring together volunteers from various NGOs and professionals to spread legal knowledge among residents and help victims of abuse fight for their rights. Composed of 30 volunteers, including lawyers, social activists and judges, the ADV team has set up a counselling hotline and held lectures on laws protecting abuse victims for the residents. The team also helps train judges and police officers to be more aware of the special problems facing battered women.

Yuan Xin, one of the team psychologists, says that with legal assistance from the team, many victims of spousal abuse have become bold enough to stand up for their own rights.

And it was the legal and psychological aid provided by the ADV team that made Wang Shurong feel empowered enough to decide to divorce her husband and start a new life. The team also helped her find a job to support her daughter, who is studying at a teachers' college.

"I feel a lot better now, both physically and mentally," the once battered woman says.

Women's say

'It is truly alarming that physical abuse against women is spreading.'
-- WANG HUAN, a volunteer for Hongye Women's Hotline

'More often than not, women do not know how to properly protect themselves. They either take their hardships lying down or resort to violence in retaliation.'
-- CAO SUYING, an NPC deputy from Hebei Province

'Nothing will happen to the husband if the wife does not agree to have the case referred to the procuratorate. That's ridiculous. After a bank is robbed, do you ask the bank's consent to have the robber prosecuted?'
-- LIU WEI, a lawyer

'I feel a lot better now, both physically and mentally.'
-- WANG SHURONG, a former victim, now divorced

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