Lu Yanxia was six months pregnant when her husband beat her so badly that her face was left swollen beyond recognition. The violence had begun only a few short weeks into their relationship. Although he had begged her for forgiveness, the beatings didn’t stop. He was also psychologically abusive, stopping her from meeting friends and taking control of her money. The last beating was so severe that, bruised and heavily pregnant, she finally found the courage to flee.
“There was pressure from his family to put up with it, to stay with him because of the child,” she says. “And I felt I couldn’t call the police station, it was still close to his home. So I ran away where he couldn’t find me and filed for divorce.”
Women are often pressured by family to stay in abusive relationships, and it’s one of the central reasons why spousal abuse is underreported in China, where domestic violence is generally still seen as a private, family matter. Official government figures suggest around one in four married women have experienced domestic violence at least once, but experts place the number much higher – as high as 40 percent, according to research by U.N. Women in China.
This hidden epidemic finally gained official attention a year ago, when China’s first Family Violence Law was ratified in December 2015. It was a hard-won achievement that took almost two decades of campaigning from NGOs and experts, who joined together to form the now-defunct Anti-Domestic Violence Network. The landmark bill covers not just physical but also psychological abuse, applies to both married and cohabiting couples, and allows relatives to file a complaint on behalf of victims. The new law means domestic violence is now a valid reason for divorce and marks this type of violence as a recognized offence in its own right, with abuse potentially leading to seven years in prison. Crucially, it also introduced a system for obtaining protective restraining orders – the first of which were issued just days after the law came into effect in March 2016 – and set out clear procedures for police dealing with domestic violence cases.
But despite the promising start, campaigners are concerned the momentum is stalling.
“We can see some progress in the first year since the law was accepted,” says Feng Yuan, cofounder of women’s rights NGO Equality. “We can see more protection orders issued, more police issuing warning cards to perpetrators and we can see more women seeking help, as well as more NGOs starting to work in this field.
“However, we see a lot of gaps. For example, there isn’t enough capacity-building in implementation agencies such as the police, lawyers, social workers. They can’t handle all the cases properly and aren’t clear enough on procedure.”
China has plenty of women’s shelters, but many of them remain empty, lacking the facilities, security and information they need to protect and assist the women who come to them for help. In some cases, advocates say women seeking refuge are persuaded to return to their husbands instead.
And in many cases, women who are being abused simply can’t afford to leave. Although legal aid centers exist across the country, Gao Mingyue, a family lawyer and founder of For NGO, an organization that helps other NGOs in the country to do their work, says the centers are reluctant to help if the victim has any assets, even if they all belong to the abusive spouse. Currently there is no provision in the law for financial compensation to victims, something campaigners are calling for in future amendments.
“We feel now that the law has been enacted that it also has to be upscaled,” says Julia Broussard, head of U.N. Women in China. “We have been working in three counties – Hunan, Gansu and Sichuan – but that’s a drop in the bucket for the number of counties in China. We really need to find the funding and support to roll out what we’ve been doing in those pilot counties.”
U.N. Women has been running programs in China to raise awareness of women’s rights and provide legal advocacy, while also working with the police and the legal system to help women access the services available to them and offering activities to show men and young people how to prevent domestic violence before it starts.
“Police everywhere have to be trained, judges everywhere have to be trained, the media has to know how to report on this issue,” says Broussard. “There’s no end to the work that has to be done.”
Activists say there is a disconnect between the rights enshrined in the law and the system that implements it. For example, says Gao, judges have previously been reluctant to consider domestic violence in divorce proceedings, and mindsets are slow to change. “The judge’s perspective is that if [the couple] is already getting divorced, [the problem] is finished,” he says. “Legal focus has always been on the division of property and custody of children, rather than spending time looking backward.”
And although the law has been on the books for a year, raising awareness remains a challenge. An ongoing survey by the Asia Foundation and Beijing-based consultancy SynTao has so far found that 40 percent of H.R. managers and 68 percent of the workers surveyed were unaware of the law’s existence.
As NGOs and charities continue to try to make women in China aware of their new rights, they also have to deal with a government crackdown on women’s rights activists. A month after the law was passed, the Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center was closed by government officials, which many warn is part of a continued clampdown on civil society, including the arrest and harassment of women’s rights activists.
Campaigners say they will not be cowed. The government has sent “a signal to society that, ‘We are not going to tolerate this anymore,’” says Broussard. “Because the law has been enacted, stakeholders have to take the phenomenon more seriously.”
Now separated from her husband for eight years, Lu Yanxia has turned her life around and works as a consultant in family and marriage law, helping other victims of abuse.
“We need this law in China,” she says. “It will make couples think before they turn to violence. Because the pain of the victims of domestic violence is not just in their bodies, but also in their minds. And that takes a long time to recover.”