June 29, 2016, The Asia Foundation

Earlier this year, China’s parliament passed the country’s first law against domestic violence. Chinese culture holds that women have a moral responsibility to defend their marriages. The shame involved in seeking help or for family and friends to advocate on behalf of the victim is one reason why it took China so long to join other nations in developing laws to address this social ill.

According to the All-China Women’s Federation, established by the Communist Party of China, about a quarter of women suffer violence in their marriage, though very few complaints are registered. In November 2014, Chinese legislators drafted China’s first domestic violence law. The law was passed by Parliament in July 2015 and took effect on March 1, 2016. The law prohibits any form of domestic abuse, including psychological, and provides a process for obtaining restraining orders. The law covers unmarried people cohabiting, though there are no legal protections for same-sex couples.

Chen Tingting, the Asia Foundation’s program officer for women’s empowerment, examines the impact and implications of this new law.

The new law’s immediate effect was seen in a wave of media coverage spotlighting domestic violence cases, including the deaths of two women around the time it came into force. A consistent thread in these women’s stories was an inability to leave the abusive relationships or to disclose their suffering. A victim’s decision not to make a complaint to the police—willingly or unwillingly—can easily undermine the ability of the new law to uphold justice. In China, domestic violence cases are processed under the principle of “no trial without complaint.” The new law allows close relatives to file a complaint on behalf of victims who may not be able to do so on their own. This would then allow police or women’s federations to request restraining orders from the courts.

Violence against women is a global scourge. A Copenhagen Consensus Center paper reports that domestic violence is more costly in lives lost and dollars spent than warfare. The United Nations estimates that one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence. The UN’s 1993 General Assembly Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women makes it incumbent upon every nation to enact laws to protect women.

In the United States, the national battered women’s movement grew from a system of informal shelters and safe-house networks spread across the country. Starting in the early ’70s, the movement worked long and hard to get similar laws passed locally and federally. But they also strove to counter the cultural assumptions surrounding the problem in public education campaigns—the laws would have been virtually useless without intensive training of police and judges, developed in concert with sympathetic actors in each of these realms. (For more on the remarkable history of this movement and on movements in general, readers should consult Susan Schecter’s unique Women and Male Violence: The Visions and Struggles of the Battered Women’s Movement.)

The American battered women’s movement took place in the context of a thriving and socially challenging civil society. The mission was to engage the women being served in a joint struggle to raise consciousness not only to end violence, but to rethink the gender assumptions embedded in “the rule of law” and elsewhere. It was, in other words, a product of feminist analysis. The work in China is clearly based in the same analytical framework.

Unequal power dynamics between the abuser and the abused are not always determined by relative financial security. Perhaps more fundamentally, these power dynamics are often based on gender norms. Contrary to the popular myth that victims of domestic violence are usually less educated or financially dependent, many women who are university-educated and even providers for their households are also victims of domestic violence.

Chen Tingting describes the new law as being the “result of almost two decades of campaigning driven by China’s civil society groups,” but she says “it will take a more insightful public education campaign, and a firm commitment to upholding human rights, to transform the underlying mindset that currently constrains further progress. Until then, the path to ending domestic violence will be a long one for China, as elsewhere.”—James Schaffer and Ruth McCambridge