Domestic violence in China and ineffective law

An overwhelming response to the new domestic violence helpline app in China has brought a focus on the surge in domestic violence cases. More than 13,000 people, mostly women, have reportedly used the domestic violence help service for help.

Cases of domestic violence have risen sharply especially during the pandemic as strict restrictions were imposed on people. Domestic violence had increased threefold in Hubei province, the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak, from 47 cases in 2019 to 162 in 2020.

Incidents of domestic violence were reported from different parts of China but it became more visible in recent years. In 2016, when China passed its first anti-domestic-violence law, the legislation was widely welcomed as it was considered a major victory for women’s rights activists. The activists pointed out that an estimated one in four women in the country suffer from some type of intimate partner abuse.  Critics too had pointed out loopholes in the draft law and stated that it did not cover couples who were divorced or not married, as well as those in same-sex relationships.

The Anti-Domestic Violence Law has explicitly stated in Article 1: “to prevent and stop domestic violence; protect the equal rights of family members; preserve equal, harmonious, civilized familial relationships; promote family harmony and social stability.” Unfortunately, the last objective (preserving and protecting family harmony) directly contradicts with the first (preventing domestic violence), which is the main issue leading to the law’s overall ineffectiveness.

Domestic violence advocates and lawyers have expressed their concern for the emerging pattern in divorce cases: Some asserted that too often Chinese courts deny or ignore women’s claims of intimate partner violence. The result is that victims fail to seek compensation for physical injuries and other losses.

Arecent study by Beijing Qianqian Law Firm made startling revelations about domestic violence .According to the study, of 844 divorce cases without compensation claims, courts only supported claims of domestic violence in 54 cases. In 346 cases, judges did not respond to such claims in their decisions. In 244 cases, judges determined that the alleged assault never occurred, citing reasons like insufficient evidence, or that the complaint should be treated as a family dispute. 

In 94 cases where plaintiffs asked for monetary compensation, 78 of them described multiple incidents and forms of domestic abuse, including assault, verbal abuse, and threats. Although 51 of them submitted relevant evidence such as police reports, photographs, and medical records, courts only credited reports of domestic violence in 10 cases.

The study also found that, of 94 cases where plaintiffs accused their partners of violating “personality rights” by inflicting violence on them, courts supported the claims in just 15 cases. Even when courts ordered compensation, plaintiffs were rarely paid the full amount of money asked for, as judges believed that the victims were partially responsible for “not handling the dispute properly” or “being too impulsive in moments of stress.” Ironically, the onus of proof is on plaintiffs when they make claims of domestic abuse.

Activists admitted that the law has its limitations. Feng Yuan, co-founder of Beijing Equality, a non-government group, pointed out shortcomings in the enforcement of the law. “Outside courts, there are wide discrepancies in how local police officers handle reports of domestic abuse,” Yuan said and added that there’s “a lack of empathy” among some of its employees, who “are not motivated enough to provide help to victims.”

Besides, there are growing barriers to divorce, such as a 30-day “cooling-off” period required by Chinese law for couples looking to part ways.  A 2020 report by Beijing Equality showed that more than 900 women had died at the hands of their husband or partners since China’s anti-domestic-violence law came into effect. Tibetan video influencer Lhamo died in 2020 after her ex-husband set her on fire during a livestream. Lhamo had called the police multiple times when abuse occured, but her complaints weren’t taken seriously, and she never received the protection she sought.

Lhamo’s incident was rare but not uncommon. “From time to time, we receive calls from victims who are constantly failed by the system,” Feng added. “Although there have been a few cases like Lhamo’s that made national headlines and generated discussion, the overall media coverage of domestic violence cases is actually on the decline. We hope that more reporting on this issue will make officials more aware of the severity of the problem and the public sentiment toward it.”

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