China took a step in the right direction this past Sunday by passing legislation which recognizes and condemns domestic violence among romantic couples. According to state news outlet Xinhua, the law acknowledges both psychological and physical abuse, recognizing both verbal threats and forced restraint as "obstructions." Victims, legal guardians, and close relatives will be allowed to file reports on domestic violence, and police will be required to investigate. It applies to married couples, families, and individuals cohabiting in the same space (aka roommates).
Though the legislation signifies clear progress, its definition of domestic violence isn't broad enough. Members of same-sex couples remain unable to seek out protection from the law if they are victims of domestic abuse. The legislation also avoids bringing the topic of sexual abuse to the table, failing to fight the stigma surrounding sexual assault.
Upon reviewing over 40,000 domestic violence complaints in 2014, the All-China Women's Federation, an organization run by the Communist Party, reported that up to a quarter of Chinese women have experienced domestic violence, mainly in marriages. Prior to this law, the Chinese government steered clear of defining domestic violence, let alone prohibiting it. Instead, the Communist Party turned a blind eye and considered domestic violence a matter that was meant to remain inside of homes. As a result, victims were expected to remain silent. Kim Lee is an activist and educator who refused to do so. Instead, she encouraged women to drag the issue out in public.
In an opinion piece written for The New York Times, Lee said that she told a female police officer that she had been beaten by her husband, a high-profile businessman:
If a man jumps on a woman’s back and beats her head into the ground 10 times, that’s not a crime? If someone did this to me on the street outside, you wouldn’t file a report? There is no law against that behavior in China?
The officer disregarded the report and urged Lee to keep the incident to herself:
'You and your husband are both good people, just calm down a little, go home, everything will be fine.'
She clearly couldn't rely on the authorities to take action, so she posted pictures of her bruised face on social media. She was granted a divorce in 2013 — something that is also looked down upon in Chinese society. Lee explained that only three percent of women are granted divorce based on domestic violence alone. She added that mothers often lose their children in custody battles because their husbands usually have higher incomes.
Lee's case helped make the world more aware of China's domestic violence problem, but there is still much work to be done on a number of fronts. Same-sex couples remain unprotected by the law, and that's not the only way they're disregarded by the government. Neither gay marriages nor civil unions are recognized by the Chinese government. Furthermore, the country didn't make male rape illegal until November of 2015.
Such negligence ties into Chinese society's stigma around sexual assault, which remains undefined for both gay and straight couples in the bill. Though rape — the most extreme case of sexual violence — is illegal, cases remain dictated by outdated mores which shame victims. Much like in domestic violence, rape victims are considered dishonored, and this is especially a problem in rural China. In 2011, a rural farmer from Eastern China's Anhui province was accused of raping or sexually assaulting 116 women, and fewer than half spoke out against him, according to China Daily. One woman who did report her assault was later beaten by her husband.
The perseverance of victim-shaming shows that even after they're implemented, laws take time to become integrated into society. Though it's now passed this law, China will have to spend more time and effort to truly transform the way victims of domestic violence are treated by society.