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Tackling domestic violence

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezNovember 27, 2014

China has drafted its first ever law against domestic violence, expanding the legal options available to victims. But as HRW's Maya Wang tells DW, the bill won't cover all cases, including those of unmarried couples.

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Image: picture alliance / Photoshot

Three years after physical violence became an accepted reason to file for divorce in China, the country has drafted its first piece of legislation to give domestic violence a legal definition, and includes forms such as child abuse and violence between spouses.

The draft bill, which still needs to be approved by China's state parliament, is also designed to help simplify the process of obtaining restraining orders, seldom issued in the communist country. According to statistics cited by Chinese state media, nearly 40 percent of women in a relationship have experienced some form of sexual or physical abuse.

However, critics have been quick to point out the draft law does not cover couples who are divorced or not married, as well as those in same-sex relationships.

"We know that domestic violence is also occurring in the context of other relationships not defined as family relationships," Julia Broussard of UN Women was quoted as saying by AFP news agency. "Our concern is that some of the violence is not going to be addressed by the law."

Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), says in a DW interview that the draft bill is a step in the right direction as it would help to raise awareness about domestic violence among victims, law enforcement agencies and the general public.

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The draft bill on domestic violence still needs to be approved by China's state parliamentImage: Reuters

However, she warns, there are a number of major loopholes in the draft that threaten to undermine what it is supposed to achieve.

DW: What exactly does the new draft law entail?

Maya Wang: It is more a protective law to prevent and address domestic violence. It outlines responsibilities and responses of various government entities in cases of domestic violence and the kinds of protections available to the victims. It doesn't provide details about punishments for domestic violence though, which would be the domain of the criminal law.

Who would this new law apply to, if and when enacted?

It only applies to violence between married couples, between parents and children and "other close relatives who live together." But the problem is it excludes same-sex couples, couples who aren't married but who are intimate, or those who are divorced.

How long did China take to draft this law?

It took many years, and a law is really long overdue. Many women's rights advocates who are concerned about domestic violence and international rights organizations have pushed for it.

There's currently no national legislation dealing with domestic violence, which makes it really difficult to address it. For example, when a woman goes to the police and complains about being abused, the police say this is a domestic dispute and not a crime, because there is no clear legislation on domestic violence.

Was the draft law ultimately triggered by a specific case of domestic abuse?

I think cases of high-profile individuals being subjected to domestic violence - most prominently that of a US citizen named Kim Lee who was granted a divorce on grounds of domestic violence - really helped raise public awareness about this problem, which in turn pushed the government to want to address this issue.

2015 also marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing which was an important international event for China, and I think the Chinese government wants to show that it has made some progress by passing this law in 2015.

How big of a problem is domestic violence in China?

Like in the rest of the world, domestic violence is a serious problem. In China, I think, the official statistics show that every 1 in 4 women is a victim of domestic violence. It is also a hidden problem with women not wanting to let their family and friends know about it because not succeeding in one's marriage is considered shameful.

There's a tendency to preserve family harmony in the culture, so even when women finally get the courage to seek help from the police and the official All-China Women's Federation, the authorities would often brush these complaints off and try to mediate between the perpetrator and the victim, and the victim's situation does not improve or even gets worse.

So the law will help to draw more attention to domestic violence as an issue, and educate both ordinary people and frontline officers that this isn't just marital discord but a serious and criminal matter.

What is your view on this draft law?

It is certainly a positive step. It would help to raise awareness about domestic violence among victims, law enforcement agencies and the general public. It also obligates the police to send officers to investigate such cases, and so on.

But there are a number of major loopholes in this draft that threaten to undermine what it is supposed to achieve. First of all, the definition of domestic violence is problematic. One issue is that it doesn't cover certain intimate relationships.

Second is that it doesn't cover economic violence such as depriving a woman of money to survive if she doesn't work which often goes along with physical and psychological violence.

Another problem is with Article 19 which says police should issue a "written warning" if the level of domestic violence doesn't reach criminal or administrative penalties. But a "written warning" is hardly adequate or effective and might provide opportunities for police to shirk responsibilities.

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Wang: 'A law on domestic violence is really long overdue'Image: AFP/Getty Images/E. Jones

So what more should the law provide for?

The law needs to require the police to advise victims on their legal rights and options, and refer them to other official follow-up and referral actions. Finally, the draft law allows women to apply for a protection order, but that order expires after 30 days, unless the women subsequently file for divorce.

But often women who face domestic violence situations don't want a divorce quite yet and tying the protection order with that kind of action would deter many from seeking the protection they badly need.

Maya Wang is China researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), Asia division.