BEIJING, China - China has drafted its first national law against domestic violence, with activists hailing it Wednesday, November 26, as a step forward in a country where abuse has long been sidelined as a private matter.
The new law formally defines domestic violence for the first time and streamlines the process for obtaining restraining orders - measures long advocated by anti-domestic abuse groups.
"Over the years, we've many times felt powerless ourselves to help victims," said Hou Zhiming, a veteran women's rights advocate who heads the Maple Women's Psychological Counselling Centre in Beijing.
"If this law is actually enacted - because the issuing of a draft means it will now enter the law-making process - we will be very pleased," said Hou, whose centre is one of China's longest-running anti-domestic violence organisations.
"At the very least, there's finally movement on this law," she said.
But advocates also say the draft law, released by the Legislative Affairs Office of China's State Council on Tuesday, excludes unmarried and divorced couples and falls short in some other areas.
Julia Broussard, country programme manager for UN Women, said that UN agencies were "thrilled" to see the law made public after more than a decade of efforts by Chinese advocates, "but we did note right away that it doesn't extend to any non-family relations".
"We know that domestic violence is also occurring in the context of other relationships not defined as family relationships," including dating, cohabiting and same-sex couples, Broussard said.
"And so, our concern is that some of the violence is not going to be addressed by the law," she added.
'Not a private issue'
Less than two decades ago, physical abuse was not even acceptable as grounds for divorce in China. In 2001 the marriage law was amended to explicitly ban domestic violence for the first time.
But without a legal definition of the term, many victims - if they report abuse at all - have been shuffled from police to women's federation to neighbourhood committee, with authorities reluctant to intervene unless serious injury is involved.
"It's very important for China to have some kind of nationwide, targeted domestic violence legislation on the books, because it has not had it, and it's been a real legal barrier for a lot of women seeking to extricate themselves from very abusive relationships," said Leta Hong-Fincher, author of "Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China".
"Despite the shortcomings we need to acknowledge that this is important legislation and a very important first step towards tackling this epidemic of domestic violence in China," she said.
Currently little protection is available if a partner threatens violence against a victim who tries to leave, activists note, as restraining orders are rarely issued in China and shelters are nearly non-existent.
Courts must rule on restraining order requests within 48 hours, according to the draft law -- but if one is granted, the victim must start a lawsuit within 30 days or it will lapse.
Experts say that it is rare for domestic violence laws to require victims to undertake a lawsuit in order to obtain or maintain a restraining order.
"This is a bit problematic," Broussard said. "We know from experience that many victims are not necessarily at that point of seeking divorce or some other kind of legal action that would be required to maintain the legal protection ruling."
Nearly 40 percent of Chinese women who are married or in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported Wednesday, citing figures from the All China Women's Federation.
The group, which is linked to the ruling Communist Party, has previously reported that abuse takes place in nearly a quarter of Chinese families.
"Domestic violence is illegal and affects family members physically and psychologically," Tan Lin, head of the federation, told the China Daily.
"It is not a private issue but a social problem." - Rappler.com