Five years ago today, China’s Anti-domestic Violence Law formally came into effect. The document — the first of its kind in China — sought to protect victims of intimate partner violence or child abuse by allowing them to apply for restraining orders and the revocation of legal guardianship. It also mandated education and awareness efforts in schools and in the media and required law enforcement to take formal action in cases of suspected abuse.
To an extent, this has worked: Over the past five years, public awareness of domestic abuse has indeed grown. But much of this has been due to a string of graphic, high-profile cases, such as that of Lhamo, a Tibetan woman whose ex-husband burned her to death late last year as she recorded a livestream. These cases have drawn attention to the issue of violence within the home, but they also highlight how much more there is to be done. A police officer told Chinese media Lhamo had sought help multiple times, but the police had been reluctant to intervene in “a family affair” — exactly the kind of attitude the Anti-domestic Violence Law was meant to dispel.
The feminist scholar and activist Feng Yuan has been one of the loudest voices calling for a renewed look at the law and its consequences, both intended and unintended. Equality, the nongovernmental organization she co-founded in 2014 to advocate for women’s rights and gender equality, has made domestic violence prevention one of its signature initiatives. Since the law’s implementation in 2016, Equality has issued yearly monitoring reports, updating the public on its progress. In this interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, Feng reviews that progress, talks about some of the challenges Equality has identified, and shares her vision for the future of domestic violence prevention in China.
Feng Yuan attends a lecture. Courtesy of Feng Yuan
Sixth Tone: What are the main developments that have taken place in the five years since the Anti-domestic Violence Law came into effect?
Feng Yuan: I think the biggest development is that more victims have started standing up for their rights. Although we lack statistics, the number of calls to the police and anti-domestic violence hotlines has increased in many places. Many survivors are also posting about their situations and seeking help on social media. And we have begun to see more and more victims persevere through the process of applying for protection orders and defending their rights.
Another promising development has been in the sphere of law and policy. Since the central government promulgated the Anti-domestic Violence Law, various central-level departments have issued their own supporting policies. On the local level, at least 12 provinces have passed supporting regulations. And in 2017, the central city of Changsha became the first city to include domestic violence prevention in their assessment of state agencies.
However, from a national perspective, China has yet to take united action against domestic violence and many places have not yet included the prevention of domestic violence in their government work plans, evaluation systems, or training curricula. Many regions have only limited experience handling domestic violence-related issues, and the few best practices we have are not yet widespread.
Sixth Tone: Based on your monitoring and research, which national and local regulations have been most effectively implemented and have played the biggest role in the fight against domestic violence?
Feng: The most important thing is education. However, aside from initiatives like making it mandatory for kindergarten teachers to report signs of abuse, the Ministry of Education has not developed an anti-domestic violence and gender equality curriculum.
Protection orders are another relatively effective way of ensuring victims’ safety. However, only a little over 6,000 restraining orders had been issued nationwide as of last November. There are hundreds of millions of families in China, so clearly the full potential of the protection order system is far from being realized. The same is true for official warnings. If an instance of domestic violence is not deemed serious enough to warrant detention, public security departments should ideally at least issue a written warning. But at present, most localities throughout China issue very few written warnings, with some doing so for just 10% of all domestic violence cases reported to the police.
The places where anti-domestic violence work has been relatively effective have one thing in common: the importance local leaders have attributed to the issue. They have made fighting domestic violence a priority and have implemented corresponding training and work requirements for frontline personnel. In addition, some localities have begun working with the All-China Women’s Federation and other organizations that protect women’s rights. Fighting domestic violence is a huge undertaking, and increasing the frequency of written warnings and protection orders are only small parts of a greater whole.
Sixth Tone: What are the main reasons for the continued reluctance to issue written warnings and protection orders?
Feng: I think the public security departments need to strengthen their evaluation metrics. Local agencies will only do the work if they are held accountable from above.
Official data in 2019 shows the nationwide restraining order approval rate is about 66% — a number that doesn’t seem low, though only a small portion of victims ever apply for one. In some places, however, this rate drops to just 33%.
But what we’re really focused on is achieving an increase in the uptake of specific protective measures that could be included in these protection orders, but often aren’t. Sometimes, protection orders only state that domestic violence is prohibited: They don’t include the kind of specific measures that prevent perpetrators of violence from contacting and stalking victims, or force them to move out of a shared residence.
In these cases, the judge will say something like: “If the perpetrator is forced to move out of his residence, where will he live in the future? He is the owner of the house — how is he supposed to move out?” But that’s clearly not in line with the text of the Anti-domestic Violence Law, and should not be a reason to dismiss a protection order. Why didn’t the abuser think of the consequences when they committed violence against their victim?
Sixth Tone: Anti-domestic violence work requires collaboration between multiple departments, such as public security organs, the All-China Women’s Federation, civil affairs departments, and educators. According to your observations, how effective has this collaboration been so far? And which department is currently doing the most to address domestic violence?
Feng: We believe mechanisms for cooperation between multiple departments are worth promoting, but currently, such cooperation does not exist in many places, or it isn’t being effectively implemented. A lot of the time, departments just tend to pass the buck among themselves.
For example, when a police officer responds to a report, they might say, “Hey, stop fighting. Just make things work if you can, and get divorced if you can’t.” But their responsibility is to issue written warnings, detain abusers, and get victims medical help or a place to stay, if needed. Those kinds of referrals almost never happen, in our experience. Sometimes the police will record serious incidents as simple fights between husband and wife or family disputes, with no mention of abuse whatsoever.
All departments equally bear responsibility. If a victim of domestic violence goes to the hospital to see a doctor, then the medical system should bear the initial responsibility of protecting them and coordinating with the rest of the relevant authorities. If a victim calls the police, then law enforcement bears a similar responsibility. The same can be said of the Women’s Federation and village committees. But the problem is there are weak connections between various departments. And some village committees don’t even know what their responsibilities are under the Anti-domestic Violence Law. Therefore, victims’ calls for help may not receive systemic support and at times even fall on deaf ears.
Currently, the proportion of victims filing reports with the police is increasing, and it now exceeds those who first go to the Women’s Federation for help. That means improving police awareness of how to handle these cases is vital. Currently, their training is far from adequate. In 2019, a middle school student in the eastern Shandong province was killed by her abusive father. She had written a request for help, and the local police sent officers, but they failed to deal with the issue properly. After her death, there were no suggestions that the local public security agency had taken responsibility or had made changes to strengthen officer training.
In short, it’s urgent to strengthen regulations governing how the police handles incidents of domestic violence. We also hope that, in the future, more civil society groups can be included in first-responder training, as these groups tend to have a lot of experience in this area.
Sixth Tone: In many previous cases of domestic violence, one of the victim’s main concerns has been their children. In this regard, have any effective practices been developed in the past five years? What current approaches need to be changed?
Feng: There is a social work center in the southwestern city of Kunming — the Mingxin Social Service Center — whose shelter is embedded in the residential community. The daily lives of its residents and their children are basically unrestricted and undisturbed.
However, most women’s shelters in China still function more like shelters for homeless people. Many of them are located in places with inconvenient transportation, and some have closed management: After entering, the victims cannot easily leave, and once they do, it’s hard for them to get back in. The shelter personnel also lack the training to effectively counsel children and women affected by domestic violence.
Volunteers with the Mingxin Social Service Center at an event promoting the rights of women and children in Kunming, Yunnan province, 2017. From @明心社工 on Weibo
Sixth Tone: In recent years, media coverage has been credited with bringing public attention to the issue of domestic violence. However, your research has found that media and official mentions of domestic violence peaked the year of the Anti-domestic Violence Law’s passage in 2016 and have fallen steadily since. Meanwhile, information released by the relevant government departments accounted for only 2% of the total coverage. What impact do you think this fall in reports will have?
Feng: Though news reports on domestic violence have attracted considerable attention from the public, in general, information related to domestic violence only accounts for a small proportion of overall media coverage. The Anti-domestic Violence Law was introduced in 2016, and that year represented a peak in media coverage of the subject.
Meanwhile, public security organs, civil affairs bureaus, and other departments responsible for preventing domestic violence have not issued much information on the subject. In fact, it wasn’t until last year that the Ministry of Public Security issued its first report related to domestic violence.
In short, although some government departments have made efforts to curb domestic violence, they have not paid much attention to making the relevant data available to the public. This lack of information is detrimental to public awareness, and to victims who need help. It also prevents government departments from making policies to effectively address critical issues and hinders cooperation between different departments.
Sixth Tone: While the public is paying more attention to domestic violence, most of this attention has focused on the role of the victim, while the role of the perpetrator is rarely discussed. How can we address this issue in the future?
Feng: There is very little research on this issue, making the job of targeting perpetrators more difficult. Few come forward to seek help, and those who do generally attempt to defend themselves. Many perpetrators of domestic violence tend to rationalize their behavior. What’s more, current social norms and sometimes even the practices of the authorities can seemingly condone domestic violence. This makes abusers even less willing to be forthcoming about their behavior.
Aside from that, the implementation of the Anti-domestic Violence Law can still be improved. For example, the law stipulates that labor unions; Women’s Federation, Chinese Communist Youth League, and Disabled Persons’ Federation chapters; and village committees should provide counselling and court-mandated legal education to perpetrators. However, because these organizations have no power to force abusers to comply, nor any counselling expertise, this has not been an effective solution.
We’d like to see courts require perpetrators to attend classes and counselling sessions as part of issuing a protection order. Alternatively, after investigating a report of domestic violence, law enforcement agencies could directly require perpetrators to enter counselling.
It goes without saying these counselling sessions should be run by professionals.
A workshop on women’s empowerment in Changsha, Hunan province, July 2018. Courtesy of Feng Yuan
Sixth Tone: What have been some of the broader social effects of the fight against domestic violence over the past five years?
Feng: I think the public is now more familiar with the concept of domestic violence. This is especially true for young women, who I think will become more and more capable of recognizing and resisting violence from their partners. They also know how to better seek help.
In addition, since the implementation of the Anti-domestic Violence Law, we’ve seen a new phenomenon — that is, a lot of the requests for help we receive now come from people close to victims or witnesses of domestic violence, rather than victims themselves. Sometimes the neighbors call the police and ask for help on the victim’s behalf. There are also many people on the internet who actively share posts from victims of domestic violence. Because the Anti-domestic Violence Law encourages any institution or individual to stand up for victims, there are now more proactive bystanders, which I think is really important.
Sixth Tone: On the law’s fifth anniversary, do you have any advice that you’d like to share with law- and policymakers?
Feng: First, now that the Anti-domestic Violence Law has been in place for five years, my organization and I hope they’ll consider making amendments. We need to look at where the law has been implemented well and where it has not, and make the necessary changes so it can become more effective and achieve its full potential. In the meantime, we should consider how to better incorporate the issue of domestic violence prevention into other laws, such as those pertaining to family education or legal aid, which are currently in the process of being drafted.
Second, we hope lawmakers at both the national and provincial level will hold law enforcement to a high standard and carry out investigations to ensure the implementation of the Anti-domestic Violence Law.
Third, we hope the institutions responsible for dealing with incidents of domestic violence will incorporate more anti-domestic violence awareness work into their daily duties, assessments, and evaluations, as well as their employee training programs.
Finally, we hope more data will be recorded and made available to the public, and that this data can help policymakers determine which areas require improvement and then how to improve them.
In China, the China White Ribbon Volunteer group can be reached at 4000-110-391. Victims of domestic violence can contact the official hotline at 12338 or NGO-sponsored services like the Avon-Equality helpline at 151-1790-5157.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Boris SV/Moment/People Visual)