More than a family matter
A prominent divorce case highlights China’s attitude towards domestic abuse.
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.