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China Daily Website

China needs to reduce family violence

Updated: 2014-02-25 16:40
By Kim Lee (

I’ve received countless messages from Chinese women describing a culture that denies there is a problem. One woman wrote to me in frustration: “I accompanied my injured mother to the police station, but the officers here didn’t even know the term ‘domestic violence.’ They only say that this kind of ‘private matter’ or ‘family problem’ is common and there isn’t anything they can do.”

When abused women are ignored by the police, the last legal option is divorce in civil court. But divorce still carries a heavy stigma for Chinese women, and this is another strong deterrent for women to take action against abusive husbands.

Those who pursue divorce have an uphill battle: Among all divorces filed on the grounds of domestic violence, about 3 percent are awarded on this basis alone. If the court fails to recognize the husband’s violence but still grants the divorce, the result can be financially devastating for the woman.

Even more horrifying, divorce puts the woman at risk of losing custody of her children, as the parent with the higher income is seen as the better caretaker.

Those who have never lived through domestic violence often wonder about the victim, “Why didn’t she just leave?” The answers to this question are varied and complex, but for women in China there is a very practical answer to consider: There is no place to go. Support services are few and far between even in the largest cities, and there are no functioning shelters to speak of.

Faced with the prospect of a lengthy divorce that could end up costing a woman her home and her child, is it any wonder that prisons are full of women who attacked their husbands with axes and fruit knives rather than rely on the law to protect themselves?

Surveys of some women’s prisons have shown that more than 60 percent of inmates were sentenced for injuring or killing their husbands in retaliation for domestic violence. Many women convicted of killing their husbands serve life sentences, while most men who beat their wives to death serve only several years in prison.

In 2009, a 26-year-old Beijing woman, Dong Shanshan, reported her abusive partner to local police eight times, only to repeatedly have her bruises and complaints dismissed as “family problems.” She was later beaten to death by him. He received a sentence of six and a half years, for the crime of “maltreatment.”

China needs better domestic violence laws. Only a smattering of local courts are able to issue protection orders against abusive husbands.

A national anti-domestic violence law has been drafted and is under consideration by the government. The legislative process is too opaque to know where things stand. Its opponents say that “family matters cannot be legislated,” yet last year the national government passed a highly publicized law requiring grown children to visit their elderly parents.

It is heartening that some localities are pushing ahead with anti-domestic violence laws in the absence of a national law, but it is not enough. Only a national law can drastically raise awareness that domestic violence is in fact a crime. It would give women something to reference when turned away by the police or even to warn abusive husbands with.

In the aftermath of the publicity around my case, I was often asked by incredulous Chinese media why I, as an American, put up with my husband’s violence. I don’t think nationality makes a difference when it comes to the shame and fear women feel about speaking up.

No woman is eager to say her family isn’t happy. No woman is proud of the fact that the man she loves beats her. I’m sure my nationality contributed to the amount of attention that my case received, but certainly no more than the fact that my Chinese ex-husband is a celebrity.

Domestic violence isn’t a country-specific problem or a cultural phenomenon. It’s a crime. Stopping it doesn’t start with laws — though in some countries, like in China, new laws are necessary. It starts with voices willing to rise above geographic, political and linguistic barriers to shout out that domestic violence will not be tolerated, excused or ignored.

Kim Lee is a writer and teacher specializing in family education. She lives in Beijing with her three daughters.

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