A month after China’s landmark domestic violence law took effect on March 1, 2016, Ah Lian reported her abusive husband to police.
Yet the officers in her rural village in eastern China’s Jiangxi province doubted her story, she tells the audience at a conference in Beijing last November. The policemen persuaded her to work it out on her own — leaving her under the same roof as the man who she says beat her, limited her contact with her own parents, and forced her to have sex with him while she was pregnant.
So Ah Lian decided to pursue another avenue: filing a personal safety protection order.
This legal provision is at the core of China’s first-ever national law on domestic violence. Chinese courts issued 1,284 protection orders between March 2016 and June 2017, according to official statistics — though it’s difficult to gauge application acceptance rates, as many courts haven’t made their data public. The orders can protect claimants by barring an accused abuser — or “respondent” — from initiating contact or forcing them to move out of a shared home. While most are filed by wives against husbands, protection orders can be issued to unmarried or divorced partners, as well as parents and children.
But almost two years after the law came into effect, experts say protection orders are still not doing their job to shield victims from harm. Obstacles plague nearly every step in the process: Low awareness of the orders among both the public and the courts leads to low application numbers. Successful applications require substantial documented evidence, the protections themselves are limited, and punishments for violation are relatively mild.
From March 2016 to October 2017, at least 635 adults and children died from domestic violence in China, a 2017 report by UN Women found.
Protection orders’ greatest value could be to rural areas, where figures suggest partner violence is roughly twice as common as in cities. Yet this may be where China’s domestic violence law is failing victims most.
When Ah Lian — a pseudonym she uses to protect her privacy — visited the nearest court in Ganzhou in December 2016, the now-25-year-old discovered that none of the staff knew the first thing about the protection order application process. Claimants can submit an application form directly to a people’s court at the county level or above, but knowing what details to include and what supplementary evidence to attach can be difficult without guidance.
Ah Lian returned to the court repeatedly over three months before finally locating an employee who could help her apply for a protection order. But when it came to submitting evidence, she found that police had filed her reports as “family disputes.” She was also required to present her ID card and marriage certificate to prove her relationship — documents that were in her husband’s possession.
The fact that Ah Lian went to the authorities at all is unusual: In rural China, domestic violence is often considered a private affair, and reporting it to law enforcement is comparable to “airing one’s dirty laundry.”
“There are certainly problems on the part of the courts regarding protection order applications, but the majority of problems actually stem from society,” says a legal professional surnamed Zhou who works at a district court in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. (Zhou declined to use his full name, as staff are not authorized to give interviews without the court’s permission.)
Processing applications falls outside the scope of judges’ regular workloads, Zhou tells Sixth Tone, but most don’t consider it a burden. The real problem, he says, is systemic: If someone is experiencing abuse, they often don’t want to tell anyone. If they do decide to seek help, they don’t know any legal means. If they know about protection orders, they don’t know how to file an application. And if they do apply, they often don’t know how to collect the necessary evidence.
Lack of evidence is the primary reason applications are rejected, according to Zhou. “From the court’s side, it’s impossible to grant a protection order based solely on an application form,” he explains. Applications with substantial evidence — police reports, medical records documenting physical abuse — are likely to be approved by a judge. Psychological abuse can be harder to prove. Claimants are advised to collect statements from witnesses, including residential committees and local women’s federation branches — state-endorsed nongovernmental bodies that nominally support women’s rights.
Yet these organizations often prove ineffectual, according to women’s rights NGO representative Feng Yuan. Some women’s federations are known to tell victims simply to go to the police or file an application on their own, she explains: “They’ll say, ‘We’re not an organization with real power and cannot offer any substantive help.’”
This attitude is harmful on multiple levels. “It discourages victims from seeking help,” says Feng, “and shows perpetrators they have nothing to fear.” Several women’s federation branches refused Sixth Tone’s interview requests.
Feng works for Weiping, a leading Beijing-based women’s rights NGO that collaborates with UN Women on anti-domestic violence efforts, including helping survivors apply for protection orders. The two groups co-organized the November conference in Beijing to conduct a 20-month review of the law and release the UN Women report, to which Feng herself contributed.
With the help of Weiping, Ah Lian got her application accepted and found housing with other domestic violence survivors in Beijing. The NGO also offered legal aid during her divorce last year.
When a protection order application reaches the local people’s court, it must be processed within 72 hours — but Zhou notes that even this is open to interpretation, as some courts take it to mean 72 business hours. While orders can be granted in 24 hours in an emergency, in practice, strict evidence requirements persist. In comparison, laws in Washington — a U.S. state referenced in 2008 guidelines that served as a precursor to China’s domestic violence law — allow for temporary 14-day protection orders issued without documented evidence.
Rather than accepting or rejecting applications outright, some courts push for a third outcome, says Feng: mediation between claimant and respondent. Of the 142 applications that Shanghai received from March 2016 to March 2017, one-third were withdrawn after mediation, according to the UN Women report.
Even among orders that are issued — valid for six months at a time — protection measures can be relatively toothless. Claimants can apply for four types: The first simply prohibits the respondent from committing domestic violence — behavior that is already against the law. Two other measures forbid the respondent from contacting or stalking the claimant and order the respondent to move out of a shared home, respectively.
The fourth measure covers “other” protections, such as banning the respondent from the claimant’s home, workplace, or other frequented venues. Before the domestic violence law passed, guidelines on family violence cases included seven protection measures, with details like the distance a respondent must keep from a claimant — but not all of them made it into the legislation.
Of the Shanghai applications accepted in the year after the law took effect, a quarter only received the first protection measure. Data available on China’s national judicial database as of Nov. 30, though not necessarily a representative sample, suggests that nearly all successful claimants requested and received the first provision. Both application and acceptance rates for other protections, especially those not explicitly stated in the law, were much lower.
“Ordinary people lack channels through which to learn about the details of the protection measures,” explains Feng. “How can they know about the ‘other’ protections that are not clarified in the law? They don’t know, so they don’t apply.”
The challenges don’t necessarily end when the court issues an order. “The procedure for handling violations of protection orders is unreasonable,” says Wan Miaoyan, a lawyer specializing in gender issues at Sichuan Yingling Law Firm in southwestern China’s Sichuan province. Violations typically result in a fine of up to 1,000 yuan ($150) or 15 days’ detention. Only if the violation constitutes a criminal act can it be judged under criminal rather than civil law.
Courts are the main bodies tasked with responding to order violations, explains Wan: Police can’t detain a respondent simply for violating a protection order, and any punishment must be issued by a judge. “However, domestic violence happens in real time and needs to be stopped swiftly,” the lawyer tells Sixth Tone.
Wan was involved in a pioneering domestic violence case in January 2017, when she represented a woman who requested protection against her live-in boyfriend — a police officer — of one and a half years. The case was seen as the first successful protection order for a cohabiting couple. The law doesn’t explicitly mention relationships outside of spousal and parent-child forms, so for groups like unmarried or separated couples, protection order applications are evaluated case by case. Advocates have also pushed for the law to cover LGBTQ couples, as same-sex marriage is not legal in China.
“We need to pay close attention to groups like LGBTQ individuals, people with HIV, and women affected by drugs, who often experience domestic violence,” says Feng of Weiping. Studies show that sexual and gender minorities in China face disproportionately high levels of domestic violence. Meanwhile, a 2016 survey found that half of HIV-positive Chinese women had experienced violence at home.
China’s domestic violence law will require concerted efforts from all corners of society to be truly effective, experts say. In addition to government and civil society groups, both Zhou and Feng point to media as key to raising awareness. In the UN Women report, Feng noted that media coverage of domestic violence in the country faded between March 2016 and October 2017, with one spike in March 2017: the anniversary of the law.
Courts and government ministries must step up their data collection, coordination, and internal awareness of domestic violence issues alongside NGOs to better protect victims, says Feng, “so that not a single one will fall.”
Contributions: Liu Chang; editor: Jessica Levine.
(Header image: Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)