Abusive husbands are now criminally liable in China, and their victims can seek restraining orders. Rights advocates applaud the new rules, but say that many women are still reluctant to speak out.
BEIJING —The Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing has been running its hotline service for more than three decades, counseling tens of thousands of women every year. But even now, two months after China implemented its first anti-domestic violence law, cultural factors continue to prevent many women from picking up the phone and reporting abuse, says Hou Zhi Min, who works at the center.
"Many people still don't think a husband abusing his wife is a big problem," she explains. "Usually, after the victims are abused, they go back to parents' house. But the response they get there is that they're not doing their job, that they're lazy, that it's their fault. It's not the man's fault."
In China, as is the case in many countries, domestic violence is a hidden epidemic. The All-China Women's Federation estimates that nearly 25% of married women in China have experienced domestic violence, but the real figure is probably much higher.
Julia Broussard, the country manager at UN Women, says that for cultural reasons, domestic violence isn't openly discussed in China. "There's a very deep cultural norm in China that you do not air your family's dirty laundry. And for that reason, many victims are reluctant to come forward and admit that violence is happening in their homes," she explains.
"A lot of work"
The country's new law, introduced in March, has helped reinforce the idea that domestic violence isn't just a private matter. But critics say the legislation is far from comprehensive.
The law prohibits all forms of domestic violence, including physical and psychological harm, and verbal abuse. Yet there is no mention of sexual abuse, or marital rape, says Broussard. "To be honest, we were a bit disappointed that sexual violence was not included in the definition of the law," she says. "We think that marital rape is a reality and should be considered a crime just like any other physical violence."
Under the law, victims can apply for a restraining order if they are subject to domestic violence, and perpetrators can be criminally liable. In the past, neither the police nor any other governmental authorities were obligated to take any action in such cases. Now they're obliged to investigate any complaint of domestic violence, gather evidence, and help victims get medical care.
Introducing the new law was an important first step, says Broussard. The next and perhaps the biggest test, is implementation and enforcement. "Unfortunately, with domestic violence there are a lot of challenges," the UN representative explains.
"You have to raise awareness and do a lot of training of a lot of different people who are responsible for enforcing the law — the police and judges, health workers in hospitals, local government officials," she adds. "All of these people have to know what the law means, what its aim is, and what their responsibilities are. And China being a large country, that's a lot of work."
Getting the word out
Observers expect the law will begin to show results within a year. Yet even then, with no reliable national data on domestic violence in China, the effects will be difficult to measure.
Organizations like the Maple call center remain focused on helping victims cope. But Hou Zhi Min says obstacles remain even there. "We've used our research to develop a guide for victims on how to deal with the abuse," she says. "But we feel helpless over the fact that victims who might want shelter after being abused don't have access to one. There is no such women's shelter in China yet."
Another problem is public awareness. Guo Ruixiang, a UN Women program coordinator, sees this as an area where Chinese media could do a lot more. "All media can play an important role," she says. "Social media is very powerful now. But there's also the mainstream media, the television stations, which can really help convey the message that domestic violence is a crime."