Op-Ed Contributors

The problem of domestic violence

By Cesar Chelala (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-14 07:57
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The problem of domestic violence

Gender violence may be under-recognized and under-reported, but it is one of the worst epidemics in China today. It is manifested essentially in violence against women, which occurs across China and affects families of all ethnic backgrounds and social spheres. But its impact is not restricted to families. It extends to society as a whole.

According to a survey, one-third of China's households have to cope with domestic violence, both physical and psychological. A china law institute survey in Gansu, Hunan and Zhejiang provinces found that one-third of the responding families had witnessed family violence, and that 85 percent of the victims were women. The surprising thing is that only 5 percent of the people surveyed said their marriage was unhappy, because not only men, but also many women consider violence a normal part of family life.

An All-China Women's Federation survey (ACWF) found that domestic violence takes place predominantly in young families and households with low educational levels in rural areas. Physical violence is more common in rural areas, and emotional abuse in cities.

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Women in China have made significant progress in recent times. But the idea that women should be subordinates to men at home and in society is still prevalent among people. And since men consider themselves the family breadwinners, they assume the right to maintain order at home by using violence.

Worldwide, violence is as common a cause of death and disability as cancer among women of reproductive age. It is a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria put together. Public health experts consider violence against women a public health issue, which should be addressed accordingly.

Cultural, economic and social factors such as shame and fear of retaliation from their partners are the cause of women's reluctance to denounce these acts. Like in other countries, domestic violence in China is not only widespread, but also considered a private matter, which makes it very difficult for women to get proper response from police and the judiciary.

Physically tortured women are more susceptible to a variety of health problems such as depression, suicide, and alcohol and drug abuse. Sexual violence against women increases the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS (through forced sexual relations or because of the difficulty in persuading men to use condoms). It may also lead to various gynecological problems.

The World Organization Against Torture has expressed concern over the high levels of violence against women not only in China, but also in the rest of the world. Although provisions related to domestic violence have been included in several national policies and laws, it is difficult to implement them properly.

According to the World Health Organization, "nearly half of women who die due to homicide are killed by their current or former husbands or boyfriends". There has been some progress in recent years on this issue in China. Roadside and subway advertisements condemning the scourge of domestic violence are part of the governments' efforts to call attention to the situation. Besides, special refuges and community support groups for victims of domestic violence are increasing in number.

The ACWF has been playing a significant role to get domestic violence included in legislation and policymaking processes. Plus, an alliance of civil society organizations has been established under a project called "Domestic Violence in China: Research, Intervention and Prevention". The alliance has taken some innovative actions to eliminate domestic violence.

In August 2008, China's first court order on protection of personal safety was issued in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. The order prohibited a husband from beating or intimidating his wife. This was the first time a court granted judicial protection for personal safety in a civil case.

But more work has to be done to control the epidemic of domestic violence. Government and community leaders should spearhead a move to create a culture of openness and support to eliminate the stigma associated with domestic violence.

Furthermore, it is necessary not only to enact, but also to enforce legislation to make all forms of violence against women, including marital rape, a crime. Laws should be followed up with plans for specific national action.

The author is an international public health consultant and the author of the Pan American Health Organization publication Violence in the Americas.

(China Daily 10/14/2010 page9)