China in first crackdown on domestic abuse

Activists have hailed step that sets out measures to combat abuse. Picture: Paul Parke

Activists have hailed step that sets out measures to combat abuse. Picture: Paul Parke

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China has drafted its first ­national law against domestic violence, with activists hailing it as a step forward in a country where abuse has long been sidelined as a private matter.

The new law formally defines domestic violence for the first time and streamlines the process for obtaining restraining orders – measures long advocated by anti-domestic abuse groups.

“Over the years, we’ve many times felt powerless ourselves to help victims,” said Hou Zhiming, a women’s rights advocate who heads the Maple Women’s Psychological Counselling Centre in Beijing, one of China’s longest-running anti-domestic violence organisations.

Ms Hou added yesterday: “If this law is actually enacted – because the issuing of a draft means it will now enter the law-making process – we will be very pleased. At the very least, there’s finally movement.”

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Advocates also said the draft law, released by the Legislative Affairs Office of China’s State Council on Tuesday, excludes unmarried and divorced couples and falls short in other areas.

Julia Broussard, country programme manager for UN Women, said UN agencies were thrilled to see the law made public after more than a decade of efforts by Chinese advocates, “but we did note right away that it doesn’t extend to any non-family relations”.

“We know that domestic violence is also occurring in the context of other relationships not defined as family relationships,” including dating, cohabiting and same-sex couples, Ms Broussard said. “And so, our concern is that some of the violence is not going to be addressed by the law.”

Under two decades ago, physical abuse was not even acceptable as grounds for divorce in China. In 2001, the marriage law was amended to explicitly ban domestic violence for the first time. However, without a legal definition of the term, many victims – if they report abuse – have been shuffled from police to women’s federations or neighbourhood committees, with authorities reluctant to intervene unless serious injury is involved.

Nearly 40 per cent of Chinese women who are married or in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported yesterday, citing figures from the All-China Women’s Federation.

The group, which is linked to the ruling Communist party, has reported that abuse takes place in nearly a quarter of Chinese families.

“Domestic violence is illegal and affects family members physically and psychologically,” said head of the federation Tan Lin. “It is not a private issue but a ­social problem.”

Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, said: “It’s very important for China to have some kind of nationwide, targeted domestic violence legislation on the books, because it has not had it, and it’s been a real legal barrier for a lot of women seeking to extricate themselves from very abusive relationships.

“Despite the shortcomings, we need to acknowledge that this is important legislation and a very important first step towards tackling this epidemic of domestic violence in China.”

Currently, little protection is available if a partner threatens violence against a victim who tries to leave, as restraining orders are rarely issued.

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