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China domestic abuse victims voiceless as network disbands

  • Ma Shuyun during an interview in Beijing as she describes beatings by her husband. Photo courtesy: AFP

by Felicia SONMEZ

BEIJING, July 22, 2014 (AFP) - The beatings began a month after the wedding, she says. For more than two years the kicking, pushing and slapping continued, as Ma Shuyun's husband -- who had wanted a son -- abused not only his wife but also their baby daughter.

Late one night, after Ma sought help from Beijing police, her husband -- helped by her mother-in-law -- wrapped her in a duvet, sat on top of her and choked her until she began to lose consciousness.

Afterwards police detained not Ma's husband but her older brother, who had rushed to save his sister, fighting off her assailant.

"They didn't arrest my husband, because they thought my injuries weren't serious enough," said the 36-year-old. "They thought it was just a marital dispute."

Ma's husband is now seeking a divorce, custody of their daughter and monthly child support payments of 1,500 yuan ($242) from her.

A court rejected her own lawsuit against him for lack of evidence, and her brother has been in jail for the past eight months.

The story is commonplace in China, where domestic violence is estimated to occur in a quarter of families and authorities are reluctant to intervene in what they deem a "private" matter, according to Hou Zhiming, a veteran women's rights advocate who has counselled Ma.

Almost two decades ago Beijing hosted a landmark World Conference on Women that laid out a plan for promoting women's rights across the globe.

But China itself remains without a national domestic violence law, and the country's Anti-Domestic Violence Network (ADVN), its first and largest umbrella group on the issue, has announced its own surprise dissolution.

"It will have a detrimental impact, because when it comes to professional anti-domestic violence work nationwide, of course the more power we have, the better," said Hou, whose Beijing-based Maple Women's Psychological Counselling Centre was one of the ADVN's 72 members.

'Complete denial'

Less than two decades ago, physical abuse was not even acceptable as grounds for divorce in China. Then, in 2001, the marriage law was amended to explicitly ban domestic violence for the first time.

But while attitudes have changed, abuse still takes place in 24.7 percent of Chinese families, according to the All China Women's Federation, which is linked to the ruling Communist Party.

"When I started working here 18 or 20 years ago, around the time of the Beijing Women's Conference, you couldn't talk to the government about it; it was like it didn't exist," said Joan Kaufman, director of the Columbia Global Centers East Asia, a branch of Columbia University in New York.

"They were in complete denial. But over the years (advocates worked) to take it beyond just being considered a private family matter and not a crime," said Kaufman, who helped set up the ADVN.

But existing laws do not define domestic violence, so that many victims -- if they report abuse at all -- are shuffled from police to women's federation to neighbourhood committee, with authorities reluctant to intervene unless serious injury is involved.

China's Communist-controlled parliament, the National People's Congress, agreed in 2012 to consider a draft domestic violence law written by activists, but it has yet to be acted on.

Feng Yuan, a founder member of the ADVN, said: "Women just worry about it, because they're not making progress. It's not so open."

Even so, when it announced its own disbandment in April, the ADVN's board said it was because it had "basically completed" its mission.

Several of the network's current and former leaders declined to discuss the decision, but some say the group's growing clout may have contributed to its downfall.

"This is sort of a general situation in terms of the government's relationship with many NGOs," said one, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. "They don't want civil society organisations criticising the government and pointing out negative phenomena in China too much."

'Domestic violence spokesman'

Domestic violence has traditionally been viewed in China as shameful and taboo, but high-profile cases have shone a spotlight on it in recent years.

Kim Lee, an American, shocked the country in 2011 when she posted online photos of abuse she suffered at the hands of her then-husband, Li Yang, the celebrity founder of China's "Crazy English" language school.

After a contentious legal battle, Lee won a divorce last year in a landmark ruling -- although Li still boasts of his actions and has even proclaimed himself a "domestic violence spokesman".

Activists have lauded a June decision by China's Supreme Court to overturn the death sentence for Li Yan, a woman who killed her abusive husband.

Ma, who for years enjoyed competitive ballroom dancing, turned gaunt after her marriage, her hair thinning and her health deteriorating, living in terror of a husband who restricted her movements and beat her if she flagged in her housework.

"I'm not a legal scholar. I'm not a police officer. So there are many things I don't understand about this," she said. "But we know every person should be responsible for his own actions. Doesn't my husband's behaviour deserve punishment?

"If my brother hadn't come, I might not be sitting here talking with you right now. I might be up there with God."

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