More than a fam­ily mat­ter

A prom­i­nent di­vorce case high­lights China’s at­ti­tude to­wards do­mes­tic abuse.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - WOMAN - By KIM LEE

WITH fresh bruises on my face and body, I sat in a smoke-filled, flu­o­res­centlit Bei­jing po­lice sta­tion with my cry­ing two-year-old in my arms. I was in­cred­u­lous at the re­ac­tion from the duty of­fi­cers.

“If a man jumps on a woman’s back and beats her head into the ground 10 times, that’s not a crime? If some­one did this to me on the street out­side, you wouldn’t file a re­port? There is no law against that be­hav­iour in China?”

The po­lice of­fi­cer stam­mered and said, “Well, of course that is a crime.”

So I con­tin­ued, “But be­cause the man was my hus­band, it’s OK? Be­ing mar­ried to a woman makes it le­gal to beat her up?”

A fe­male of­fi­cer said to me, “You and your hus­band are both good people, just try to calm down. Go home, ev­ery­thing will be fine.”

I was try­ing to file a re­port against my hus­band for as­sault­ing me, but as far as the po­lice were con­cerned, no crime had oc­curred.

I went home and posted a pic­ture on Weibo, a mi­croblog­ging plat­form, show­ing only my in­jured fore­head, hop­ing that some friends among my 23 fol­low­ers would re­spond to a cry for help.

My pho­to­graph un­leashed a tor­rent of pent-up frus­tra­tion, agony and sup­port from abused women across China.

Within hours of my post, it was for­warded and com­mented on by more than 20,000 people. I was in­spired by the re­ac­tion, and went again to a po­lice sta­tion and in­sisted on mak­ing an of­fi­cial re­port.

The saga took more than a week and even­tu­ally, the po­lice of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edged my hus­band’s abuse.

My now ex-hus­band is a prom­i­nent Chi­nese busi­ness­man, fa­mous for a chain of English­language schools that we built to­gether.

I’m an Amer­i­can who has adopted China as my home.

Our story was played out in the me­dia, leading to wide­spread at­ten­tion on us, and more im­por­tantly, on the cause of do­mes­tic abuse.

The All-China Women’s Fed­er­a­tion re­ports that nearly 25% of mar­ried women in China have ex­pe­ri­enced do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

But the abuse is far more preva­lent than those num­bers show: A large per­cent­age of at­tacks go un­re­ported.

When women find the courage to go to the po­lice, they most of­ten meet with the kind of re­sis­tance I did.

Mean­while, the le­gal sys­tem favours men – even abu­sive men – leav­ing des­per­ate women few op­tions.

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 a 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 their abu­sive hus­bands.

Those who pur­sue di­vorce have an up­hill bat­tle.

Among all di­vorces filed on the grounds of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, about 3% are awarded on this ba­sis alone.

If the court fails to recog­nise 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% 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.

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 high­ly­pub­li­cized 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.

Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence isn’t a coun- try-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. – In­ter­na­tional New York Times

Kim Lee is a child­hood ed­u­ca­tor and an ad­vo­cate for the rights of vic­tims of do­mes­tic abuse.)

Hard truth: Kim Lee’s rev­e­la­tion of her hus­band’s abuses ex­poses the is­sue of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in China, a topic still con­sid­ered a pri­vate mat­ter.

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