One night, about 10 days into the Shanghai lockdown, I was startled by the loud thud of something heavy hitting the floor above me. When I opened my window, I heard a man yelling, the sound of someone being slapped, and a woman in tears.
As a domestic violence volunteer, I knew what was happening. I also knew how hard it would be to intervene. Getting abuse victims the help and protection they need is challenging enough even in the best of times; doing so in the middle of a lockdown is a nightmare. Our first priority is moving the victim to a safe location, but this seemingly straightforward task is made nearly impossible by quarantine rules that restrict movement and forbid residents from leaving their apartments. Victims are effectively trapped under the same roof with their abusers.
Still, I had to try. I called the police, told the officer who picked up what I had heard, and asked them to send someone immediately.
“How do you expect us to intervene?” he replied. “We can’t enter your building because of the COVID-19 restrictions.” He said he would call my neighborhood committee and ask them to check on the situation, then hung up the phone.
I messaged a member of the committee myself, asking them to check on the woman, but received no reply. “The police were just pushing their responsibility onto us,” she wrote back the next morning. “Of course they can enter the complex.” In the end, no one came.
I was disappointed, but not surprised. This is my third year serving as a domestic violence volunteer in Shanghai. In that role, I work with victims as they go through the protracted and often painful process of seeking protection and justice from a system that still treats spousal abuse as a “family matter.”
Faced with official inaction, I decided to do what I could on my own. This was easier said than done. My first task was to find her. I’d only just moved into the building a few months prior. Like most Shanghai residents before the lockdown, I barely knew my neighbors. Still, I kept my eye out, until one day I saw someone returning to our building who seemed to fit the profile.
I opened cautiously, asking her if she’d heard any strange noises recently. “Oh, that was probably me,” she replied, seeming surprised. She told me not to worry and that it was just a couple of fights. I told her she could come to my apartment if she ever needed a safe place to stay.
Making contact with a potential victim is something we’re taught to do as domestic violence volunteers, as it reminds victims that they can seek assistance from others. On the night of May 19, about five weeks after the first assault, I heard a loud noise like furniture being smashed on the floor, then a woman’s voice: “Help! Help! My husband is beating me!” I rushed upstairs, where I found the woman sitting on the floor, hurt and unable to stand.
I returned to my own floor and called the police again. This time I stressed that the woman needed medical care. It’s another strategy we are taught: By highlighting the seriousness of the situation, it’s easier to persuade the police that the case is more than just a “lover’s quarrel.”
After the officer on duty repeatedly confirmed with me that there were no positive COVID-19 cases in our building, two police officers, clad head to toe in hazmat suits, showed up at the couple’s door.
One of the officers asked what had happened. The woman said she had been beaten; the man countered that she had scratched him. The officer asked if they wanted the police to “resolve” the matter.
“How?” the woman asked.
“Oh, by detaining both of you!” the officer replied.
The mention of detention clearly frightened the woman. Possibly, she never imagined that the victim might also be punished. She said that wouldn’t be necessary, then asked whether the officers could bring her to a shelter or help her buy a new phone — her old one had been destroyed by her husband. That request, of course, was turned down.
“Just put up with it and wait until Shanghai lifts the lockdown,” the officer said. Before they left, they checked the couple’s ID cards and health codes. The whole process took less than 10 minutes.
My neighbor is far from an isolated case. UN Women has called domestic violence “the shadow pandemic,” and domestic violence rates have spiked around the world over the past few years. The group found that over 50 countries had integrated the prevention of violence against women and girls into their COVID-19 plans, while 150 countries have adopted measures to strengthen services for women survivors of violence during the pandemic.
China’s Anti-Domestic Violence Law has been in effect since 2016, but I am not aware of any new national-level measures taken specifically in response to the pandemic. Instead, the country’s strict lockdown and quarantine restrictions often work to sever victims from the protections and services theoretically available to them. The police, the All-China Women’s Federation, the shelter system — all have struggled to perform their responsibilities under the Anti-Domestic Violence Law.
In the two months Shanghai was under lockdown, the group I volunteer with received over 10 requests for help from victims of domestic violence — roughly three times our usual caseload.
One of them came from a woman in her fifties who was being beaten by her ex-husband. Prior to the lockdown, she and her daughter had been about to move out. But then the lockdown started, and the violence escalated.
She called the police, but they told her the same thing they told me: They couldn’t come because of COVID-19 restrictions. She then begged her neighborhood committee for help, hoping they would at least let her move in with her sister or mom, but the quarantine rules would make no exceptions. Finally, she ran out into her compound garden. It was cold and rainy, but she told me she felt safer in the elements than with her ex. She spent hours outside, huddled in a pavilion under the incredulous eyes of her neighbors, until the property manager took pity on her and said she and her daughter could stay the night in the compound office.
In the meantime, I was trying to contact the local All-China Women’s Federation chapter – the government body responsible for helping victims under the Anti-Domestic Violence Law. No one answered. I was told later that the officials in charge of answering the phones were quarantined at home.
I then tried the national Women’s Rights Protection hotline, which is run by the AWF. The woman who picked up said it was the fourth domestic violence call she’d answered that afternoon. “It’s not like domestic violence gets you out of quarantine,” she said. “Why do these women want to create trouble with men when they know this is a difficult time … Have they thought about why they’re being beaten?”
The domestic violence shelter I contacted — another system set up under the auspices of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law — was equally unhelpful. They told me the shelter had been repurposed to house people with nowhere else to go during the quarantine.
Running out of options, my fellow volunteers and I used our personal connections to reach an official from the local AWF chapter. After a few hours, we were told that the officials, together with the police, had agreed to take the woman and her daughter to a hotel.
“It was the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had!” she wrote to us the next day.
As a volunteer, I’ll often get questions like: Why don’t victims call the police? Why don’t they run away? But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the system can make getting help seem harder than simply putting up with the violence.
During the lockdown, I worked with an injured woman who, unable to find transportation, had to walk home for half an hour from the hospital at 2 a.m. I counseled a woman who waited helplessly for the police to intervene and stop the abuse, but was rejected. For many of the women who contact us, seeking help is so difficult that staying with their abuser can seem like the more “reasonable” choice.
Some of them, like the mother in her 50s, we were able to move to safety. My upstairs neighbor was not so lucky. All I can do is keep trying, keep applying pressure on the people responsible to do their jobs — and pray my ceiling doesn’t make a sound again.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Elizaveta Stefantsova/Getty Creative/IC, reedited by Sixth Tone)