Beaten wives finally get a hearing
Xiu Xiaolu winces in pain as she wrings out her cleaning cloth. Her hands, wrists and arms are bruised - the cartilage inflamed - after being twisted and bent amid her attempt to fend off her husband during one of his violent assaults. Her defence was no match for his kicks and punches and they found their target, as they always do.
Xiu, a 28-year-old migrant worker from Anhui province , asks her expat part-time employee if she can be excused from lifting heavy objects during the morning's housekeeping duties. 'My back hurts from where he hit me,' she says; the rest of the evidence is hidden under her clothes.
Being beaten by your husband is not something you openly discuss. For millions of mainland women regularly assaulted by their spouses, it is not something you challenge, either.
The visible bruising is shocking to Western sensibilities, however. Has she ever gone to the police or sought legal action to stop the abuse? She looks surprised and giggles nervously.
Reporting your husband would be an act of betrayal and bring irreconcilable embarrassment and shame on the extended family, she says. 'He's hot-tempered. But he never beats the children. He's a good father. He always apologises.' Even conjuring up in her mind's eye a court scenario with lawyers arguing her case against her husband and a judge imposing a protection order is an impossible feat for wives like Xiu.
'Every woman I know in my town is beaten by her husband. It's what happens, isn't it?' she concludes, dismissing the issues and her bruises in the same efficient way she wipes away Beijing dust from fixtures.
The polite, quiet young mother is the stark human dimension to the wide-ranging but seemingly ineffectual debate among legislators and government-approved NGOs about how best to tackle domestic violence. Xiu's unemotional approach to life-threatening abuse mirrors the passive attitude held by the authorities.
For a government that seeks to micromanage the lives of citizens, domestic violence has been one element declared off-limits to the state. Paradoxically, far from being a dark secret best kept behind apartment doors and living-room curtains, domestic violence now has a high profile.
Many in high office recognise that such widespread human rights abuse in the home sits uncomfortably with an increasingly self-conscious society in the thrust of modernisation. Various NGOs and government welfare groups have sprung up, and domestic violence is a popular topic among legislators at all government levels. The People's Daily, the government's media mouthpiece, noted in 2003, in response to the growing concerns over domestic violence: 'Wife-beating, regarded in traditional, Chinese values as the private affair of a family that should not be intervened in, is becoming increasingly a target of social protest and government regulation.'
The issue crops up as television soap-opera storylines. And Xiu says she recently watched a documentary and a talk show on the once-taboo subject. Yet despite all the mounting concern and public awareness, little affirmative action has been undertaken to help the bruised women who 'help hold up half the sky', as Mao Zedong once declared of the fairer sex.
Even the 2005 amendment to a 1992 law protecting women's rights and interests, which 'prohibits family violence', proved to be another piece of nebulous legislation ignored by the courts and lawyers because it was light on detail and thus heavy in confusion.
In the battle between age-old habit and 21st-century gender equality, violent male chauvinistic ritual continues to triumph.
But 2010 could be the year in which bullied women finally put their violent husbands in the dock. Official surveys suggest domestic violence is rising - and the figures have sparked a new determination for radical reform. The All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), an organisation overseen by the National Women's Congress and the country's leading women's rights group, says it received 50,000 cases of domestic violence this year. That compares with the 2,000 recorded at the turn of the century.
Of course, greater awareness and more willingness among victims to discuss and report abuse have contributed to the increase. But the figures expose how widespread domestic violence remains. So the ACWF is taking action. This month, it unveiled a radical draft change to the family-protection law. It is seeking to place the onus of proof on husbands and make them prove their innocence before the courts. Currently, wives must collect evidence and prove their husbands physically assaulted them - a nearly impossible task to secure a conviction and subsequent protection. The only evidence available to victims like Xiu is the bruises. Yet even with photographic evidence of injuries, once in court, proving their husband caused them is notoriously difficult.
Few courts are willing to hear a case of domestic violence between two people in their own home without witnesses. Several cases in district courts have secured convictions. But these are arbitrary and there is no firm record of a test case setting a precedent. Judges lack clear legal guidance because the current civil law is so confusing and thus open to interpretation.
The far-reaching draft changes would at least get trials into court, a significant step forward and a loud warning to violent husbands. Crucially, the proposed change in the law would also see those husbands who force their wives into sexual acts face rape charges. Courts would also be forced to issue protection orders for victims within 48 hours.
The proposals, which would not extend to girlfriends, are set to cause a storm of controversy and likely to face obstacles. But they do signify a new willingness finally to jettison the anachronistic stance towards domestic violence, which kills an unknown number of women. If enacted, it would also bring the mainland up to date with domestic-violence laws enforced elsewhere.
Lawyer Zhang Jing of the influential Women's Law Studies and Legal Aid Centre run by Peking University welcomed the draft proposals but said more detail was required.
'The draft is good in principle because, first and foremost, it will make it easier for victims to get protection from the courts. Safety is the most important thing. It's a highly significant move. But it needs a lot of fine-tuning,' she said.
'Of course, middle-class women will be able to afford a lawyer and will benefit most from any change. But organisations like ours offer legal aid to the less well-off, and we would be keen to help poorer victims use any new law.'
But the proposals would only work in tandem with a wide-ranging educational campaign aimed at both sexes to change embedded beliefs that wife-beating is acceptable, Zhang said. 'It is paramount to erase the idea men are superior and that wives are there to be used as punchbags in times of stress.'
A radical shake-up of institutions and key professionals, such as lawyers, teachers and police, is also crucial. 'All key public servants have to be retrained to understand the safety of the victim is paramount. The retraining of policemen is vital. They are usually the first called by a victim but they still believe it is domestic affair and beyond their jurisdiction. 'At present, they fail to make any records of such incidents, so the victim is left with just her version of events,' she said.
The social-safety net also needs to be expanded. Victims like Xiu are being offered more and more aid groups and charity shelters to which they can flee when they feel their lives are in danger. But few take up the offer, as they believe domestic violence is something you suffer in silence - and those that have sought help are blocked by bureaucracy.
The first such official women's shelter in Shanghai, which opened last month, turned away its only victim during its first 10 days of operation because she was a migrant worker without the appropriate proof of identity required by the police to take up refuge. And people who request emergency shelter and protection are advised to arrive with 'the appropriate' bundle of official papers, such as a police report, said Zhang Lili, who chairs the Shanghai Women's Federation, which helps run the shelter with the city government.
Of course, domestic violence is a global problem, and it is no coincidence that the ACWF's bold announcement dovetailed with widely publicised international events.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was given editorial space in the mainland media's English-language press to promote the November 25 International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and International Human Rights Day on December 10. 'Chinese women face their own set of challenges to overcome gender-based violence that some wrongly have considered part of traditional Chinese culture,' Clinton wrote.
Beijing has waited until the level of domestic violence has reached such a level that is seen to be a threat to its authority.
'Conjugal violence has grown into a potential threat to social stability,' ACWF's spokeswoman, Jiang Yue'e, said when the draft changes were announced. 'It is also a major cause that leads to divorce and potential crimes.'
Millions have suffered in silence for decades as they waited for their government to act. Xiu may soon be able to use the courts more effectively as a shield against the wrath of her husband.
'Yes, it would be good. I'd support it,' she says, as she shuffles the newspapers into a tidy pile, eager to clean away the controversy.