Big DomesticTHE most recent occasion when Ms Fan’s husband beat her until her eyes were black and blue was a row over 100 yuan ($16). Ms Fan, who did not want to reveal her full name, is a 37-year-old cleaner. She helped her husband deliver gas canisters on the outskirts of Shanghai but hid some of the proceeds lest he fritter them away on gambling and booze. When he noticed the missing money, her lies did not convince him. “He hit me in the mouth until my lips split against my teeth,” she says.

For more than a decade women’s rights advocates in China have lobbied for a law to afford women better protection. On November 25th an office of the State Council, or cabinet, released a draft of China’s first anti-domestic violence law. At last, the government seems serious about confronting an endemic problem.

Many Chinese families suffer violence. According to a report by the All-China Women’s Federation, a state-controlled NGO, nearly 40% of women who are married or have a boyfriend have experienced physical or sexual violence. And it found that about 53% of boys and 34% of girls are physically abused by their parents. Only 7% of those suffering abuse inform the police. Ms Fan has been abused monthly for two decades but has never reported her husband. She would feel “too ashamed”.

Until recently physical abuse was not even acceptable grounds for divorce in China. The country’s marriage law was amended in 2001 to ban domestic violence, but the term was vaguely defined and there was no national guideline for dealing with perpetrators. Leta Hong Fincher, author of the book “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China”, says it is widely accepted, especially in the countryside, that a husband as head of the household has the right to hit his wife. She says one reason the government has long dithered over the draft legislation may be because it is loth to be seen meddling in men’s private affairs.

It is no surprise, then, that victims believe reporting abuse will do little good. Restraining orders are very hard to obtain. Women’s shelters are few. For mothers divorce proceedings mean the risk of losing custody of their children. Rather, victims are routinely advised by the police, women’s federations and confidantes to sort out their problems at home. In a well-publicised case in 2011, Kim Lee, the former wife of Li Yang, founder of Crazy English, a popular language-training institute, posted pictures of her bruised face and bloodied ear on her microblog. Ms Lee, an American, had been advised by her Chinese sister-in-law to stop provoking her husband. The police told her to go home and relax.

The draft law offers a definition of domestic violence as “physical, psychological or other infractions committed between family members”. It also provides directions on restraining orders and stipulates that a perpetrator of violence may be ordered to vacate a victim’s residence—a striking provision in a country where most homes are owned by the men.

Feng Yuan, a women’s rights advocate, has been calling on the government since 2003 to adopt a domestic-violence law. She calls the proposed law “significant” but plans to take up the call for comments from members of the public. She says the draft’s definition of abuse—limited to between family members—is too narrow, and leaves the unmarried, those in homosexual relationships and the divorced unprotected. Sexual violence, a common form of domestic abuse, is not covered. And an article limiting the term of restraining orders to 30 days unless followed by a lawsuit ignores the many victims who are not certain they want to divorce their abuser—but merely want the pain to end.

Even after the law is passed, which might take months or even years, it could still be a long time before victims of domestic abuse see any benefit. Vast and unwieldy, China has many problems enforcing its existing laws. Cultural hurdles may make this one even harder to implement. But where the letter of the law leads, society may one day follow.

 

Link to The Economist