A long road: domestic violence law in China

After 20 years of campaigning by women’s rights activists, China now has its first domestic violence law. The challenge ahead is to make it work to guarantee the safety of women and children.

Yuan Feng
29 November 2016

Women's NGO outreaches to grassroots women in ethnic minority areas in Yunnan. Credit: Yuan Feng

Earlier this year, Ms. Dai was awarded compensation by a court which recognised that her then husband, Mr Liu, had committed domestic violence. However this same court awarded Mr Lui custody of her son, despite the fact that Mr Lui had abducted the child in 2014 when he was 17 months old, ruling that it was in the best interests of the child for the father to have custody. The court has since issued a protection order for Ms. Dai. But as I write this article she has been blocked from seeing the child by Mr. Liu and his family, and her personal information such as her home address has been posted on the internet by him.

This case reflects the contradictory effects of the first domestic violence (DV) law in China which came into effect on  March 1, 2016.

The Chinese domestic violence law was a hard won achievement of women’s activism - the campaign took almost two decades. It was passed by Chinese law makers at the end of 2015, 20 years after Beijing was the host city of the Fourth UN World Conference on Women. Enlightened and equipped by that conference and its follow up actions, Chinese women activists began to mobilise to claim the right to live free from domestic violence and initiated a law reform movement in 1998. The Anti-Domestic Violence Network (ADVN, 2000-2014), a coalition of 75 NGOs, across 28 of 31 provinces, undertook surveys on the prevalence of domestic violence, the attitudes of police and judicial officers, and established pilot projects in urban and rural areas for a multi-agency intervention model.  They also created awareness raising campaigns and a training programme for community workers, health professionals, police, prosecutors, judges and journalists.


Map showing the members of the Anti-Domestic Violence Network and world wide connections.

In 2003, the first draft bill, prepared by the ADVN, was submitted to the National People’s Congress (NPC), the law-making body of China. In 2008, the All-China Women’s Federation, the government backed women’s organisation, joined the campaign and submitted their version of a draft bill. In 2012, the Standing Committee of the NPC finally included this proposal into the “preparatory consideration items”.

After the issue entered the law-making agenda, progress – if any – was hidden from the public. To both speed up and make the process more transparent young feminists organised public events, including street art.  During the 2012 '16 Days of action against gender based violence' (November 25 to December 10) more than a dozen young activists demanded a domestic violence law by shooting topless pictures within a “wounded brides” performance art in five large cities. During the annual session of the NPC in 2013, three of the young activists came to Beijing to present a petition with 12,000 signatures asking for speedy progress and more participation by women in the process.  

These events were covered by more than ten domestic and international media and are readily available on news and opinion websites, both in Chinese and English. An article in the International New York Times reads: “Fed up with being excluded from the decision-making process, Chinese feminists not only want a law against domestic violence, they also want to know exactly what’s going into it, in a new push for accountability from their opaque government. The petition, “Asking for Openness and Transparency in the Process of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law” spelt that out.

Ensuring the law reflected what feminists were asking for was a tough fight. The two official drafts prepare by the State Council and a working committee of the NPC invited public feedback in 2014 and 2015. They contained many defects: the definition of “family”did not include co-inhabiting relationships; violence was limited to physical assaults; education and prevention excluded the mass media; and protection orders failed to mention the role of the police.  To make women’s voices heard, feminist NGOs reached out to different communities to collect hidden needs and perspectives of: disabled people; women living with HIV/AIDs; women migrants from rural area; women survivors of domestic violence; lesbian, bisexual and trans women. A working group prepared detailed amendments which they shared widely. As a result the proposed law had 42203 comments and suggestions from 8792 contributors through the internet. This level of engagement is second only to responses on revising the criminal law. 

One contributor was a women prisoner, Li Yan in Sichuan province. She received a death sentence for killing her violent husband, after multiple attempts to seek help from the local women’s federation and the police.  This led to widespread calls for her to receive a fair trial: the UN High Commission of  Human Rights also issued a supportive statement. The Supreme Court then requested that the provincial high court undertake a retrial, and Li Yan was reprieved. On the basis of her own experiences Li Yan offered recommendations to refine to draft law.

Now we face the challenge of making the law work to prevent violence, ensure duty bearers respond and hold perpetrators to account, at the same time as supporting survivors.  The law permits police to issue a warning, provided the violence reaches a certain threshold. A woman from Shanxi province seeking this remedy was refused, the police claimed that they had never heard of this part of the law.  The woman then requested that the court issue a protection order.  The court declined, saying that this would imply that the marriage was over.  When she was abused again she took a copy of the warning letter to the police and they issued one. The husband then refused to sign that he had received the letter, so the police again told her there was nothing they could do. She then returned to the court which heard her evidence, but the judge showed her evidence to her violent husband and allowed him to a take picture, then asked her to withdraw her case.  Feeling very unsafe she went to stay with friends, she returned to see her child only to discover that her husband had deleted all the numbers from her phone, including those of the agencies she had sought help from.  She then turned to the local women’s federation who advised her to be more positive in the marriage, to demonstrate more care for her husband and child. 

Perhaps this is an extreme case, perhaps not. 

What it does show is that there is a still a large gap between the intent and rights enshrined in the law, and how the police, the courts and judges, and the women's federation respond.  

Last August, Ms. Dai, the young women who lost custody of her son, joined with ten other women in the same situation and held a press conference. Their stories attracted wide media attention.  Feminists are encouraging survivors to speak out, to publicise what the law should be doing - and what it is failing to do.  Training continues, and work has begun with young people. Finally, we are monitoring the implementation of the law as reported in the news media, on the websites of the government and women's organisations, and by the service providers. 

After 1000 days Ms. Dai has still not seen her child and there is still no verdict on the appeal of her case. 

Read more articles on openDemocracy in this year's 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Commissioning Editor: Liz Kelly

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