Mar 7, 2020 - World

China's domestic violence epidemic

A silhouette of a Chinese man who used to be a domestic abuser

A former domestic abuser who now volunteers to help others stop their abusive behavior. Photo: Felix Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Chinese activists say domestic violence cases have risen dramatically as people across much of the country have been quarantined during the coronavirus outbreak.

Why it matters: As International Women's Day approaches this year, China is reneging on its constitutional commitment to gender equality.

  • The trend highlights poor enforcement of China's new domestic violence law, and the rise of state-sanctioned patriarchy under a Communist Party that once stood for radical gender equality.

What's happening: “The epidemic has had a huge impact on domestic violence,” Wan Fei, the founder of an anti-domestic violence nonprofit in Jingzhou, a city in Hubei Province, told Sixth Tone, a news outlet in China.

  • The number of domestic violence cases reported to a nearby police station had tripled in February, compared to the same period the previous year, Wan said.
  • Yet activists said Chinese police were not taking the cases seriously, leaving women to fend for themselves amid quarantines.

Domestic violence is a widespread problem in China, as it is in many countries. According to a November 2016 survey by the All-China Women's Federation, 30% of married Chinese women had experienced some form of domestic violence.

  • China passed its first domestic violence law in 2016, after years of advocacy by activists.
  • The law created new protections for women, including restraining orders and mandatory early intervention.

But the law has been poorly enforced. That's in part because of the Chinese Communist Party's growing belief that political stability, its top obsession, begins in the home.

  • "Government pressure for institutions to help maintain 'social stability' — a paramount political priority — is also an important factor in the drive by courts to 'preserve family harmony' at any cost to women," wrote Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, in Nov. 2018.
  • In a 2018 case that drew international attention, a judge in Chengdu denied a woman's petition for divorce from her abusive husband, saying that marriage was a "traditional value."

"There’s this notion that a harmonious society is based on a harmonious marriage and family," Leta Hong Fincher, author of "Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China," told Axios.

  • The party believes that "it would be destabilizing if all these victims of sexual or domestic violence were to find recourse in the courts," Hong Fincher said. "The government thinks it would lead to chaos."

That's ironic in a country where gender equality is enshrined in the constitution.

  • "All the way to the end of 1970s, they had extraordinarily high rates of women's participation in the labor market," said Hong Fincher.

That equality began to decline after China's economy took off after "reform and opening," beginning in the late 1970s.

  • In recent years, the Chinese government has waged an explicit campaign to get women back in the home, in part out the hope that they would bear more children and boost China's slowing birth rate.

Where things stand: Vestiges of the Chinese Communist Party's former commitment to gender equality do remain.

  • International Women's Day is an important national holiday in China, when women often receive gifts.
  • Many Chinese women believe they deserve equal rights — a deeply held belief that has helped undergird the Chinese feminist movement despite intense suppression over the past five years.
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