Is Hong Kong losing the fight against domestic violence?
After a decline in reports of abuse, the figures have picked up again, to the dismay of academics and charities who say the real picture is even more shocking
Domestic abuse is on the rise again in Hong Kong and experts say the number of reported cases is “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the real number of victims.
The number of reported cases, calculated by the Social Welfare Department (SWD) as spousal or cohabitant abuse, halved between 2007 and 2012 before climbing again until 2015.
Academics and charity workers suggest the initial decline could be due to police recategorising many domestic abuse cases as family disputes around 2008.
They say more recent rises could be due to economic stress on families and limited access to support resources. They also suggest, based on their studies, that up to 98 per cent of cases go unreported.
Dr Edward Chan Ko-ling, associate professor of social work and administration at the University of Hong Kong, said the majority of cases compiled by the government represented physical abuse rather than psychological, as these were easier for social workers to identify with evidence such as bruises or wounds.
“It’s not that easy for the social worker to identify psychological abuse,” he said.
“It has to be more than just a verbal fight. It’s more clear if it involves psychological threats, manipulation or humiliation to the extent it creates a very traumatic response from the victims.”
He said he had led studies suggesting that the 3,000 to 4,000 cases reported annually in recent years represented only 2 per cent of domestic abuse cases occurring in Hong Kong. “These figures are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Chan said that a few years ago, over half the women he encountered seeking help at a shelter had experienced abuse over a period of five years. “That means it is rare that they would come out and talk to a social worker or call police after the first incident.”
Yuen Long (12.6 per cent), Kwun Tong (9.7 per cent), Sha Tin (8.9 per cent) and Kwai Tsing (8 per cent) were among the districts with the most reported cases of domestic abuse last year.
Chan said districts where there were higher levels of abuse could be explained by residents’ lower incomes and restricted access to resources. He said implementing a maximum working hours policy would ease the stress on families.
This also highlighted how the city needed a public health approach to fix the problem and more prevention measures.
“Having conflict in the family is quite common, but if we can prevent that at the early stage from becoming violence, we need to do more work on prevention. Right now in Hong Kong, the situation is that we have a number of services for reported cases but it’s very weak and there’s no strategy at all for prevention.”
Linda Wong Sau-yung, executive director of rape crisis centre Rainlily, suspected a significant proportion of victims were new arrivals from mainland China and ethnic minorities who were often ignored. “They are more unseen and they are isolated. They also have language barriers.”
She said there needed to be more training among social workers, police officers and medical professionals to help them respond and provide victims with adequate support.
Women’s shelter Harmony House received 11,876 calls on its hotline for women from last April to the end of March this year, about 30 per cent more than in 2014 to 2015. The number of calls from men and children were 601 and 6,233, respectively. The NGO provided shelter to 257 women and 200 children last year.
Doris Lee, the charity’s executive director, said the rise in reported cases might be due to improved publicity of outreach services, but her investigations suggested many were not reported. The charity had also experienced a rise in the number of mainland Chinese women facing domestic abuse at the hands of their Hong Kong partners. She said such mixed marriages accounted for more than two-thirds of cases the charity encountered.
“There is a difference in expectations in these marriages,” she said. “The Hong Kong men think that if they marry a woman from the mainland, that they will take care of all the housework. But the living space is so small, and when she eventually comes to Hong Kong, she needs a lot of effort to deal with Hong Kong life.
“The pressure builds up between them and then domestic abuse occurs. Masculinity is very important to a Chinese man. They regard themselves as having a higher social status than the woman. But in modern society, this is not how it works.”
Elaine Woo Yee-ling, the charity’s acting supervisor, said geographical isolation could explain higher reports of abuse in some districts.
“Yuen Long, for example, is quite far from work areas. Those residents might feel quite distanced if they are being abused. These are areas where we need to give more attention.”
Lee said her charity often encountered cases of psychological abuse that police should have referred to the SWD but which they often neglected because they did not deem it “serious enough”.
“They often decide these matters are just a family issue. So the cases are not referred to the SWD. They are not following formal procedure,” she said.
Harmony House received 601 calls from men last year. Staff have observed a rising number of cases involving men. “Maybe it has existed for a while but the image of men is such that they don’t feel able to approach services to help,” Woo said.
“Our experience is that they have suffered for years without saying anything. [The men] are too ashamed to talk about it.”
Lee said there needed to be greater co-operation between the police, the SWD and charities to combat the problem. “I think we need more community education about this issue,” she said. “We need to make people more aware of the problem but also what the definitions are. I hope the government can improve community resources.”
Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, chairman of the Legislative Council subcommittee tackling domestic violence, agreed that the decline in the number of reported cases after 2008 was due to the police’s reclassification. He did not think the government was providing enough services to tackle the problem and that social workers were often too preoccupied with keeping marriages together than helping victims.
“That could be a hurdle when it comes to helping the victims of domestic violence,” he said. “Because if you have the service trying to mend the relationship and put the two back together, and at the same time the situation could be dangerous and the victims will not want a reunion and rather yearn for separation, then you would have a mismatch of the expectation and the service.”
A spokesman for the SWD said it provided a wide range of preventive, supportive and specialised services to support victims of domestic violence and families in need.
He said that since 2002, the department had held a series of citywide publicity campaigns and district-based programmes to promote support for victims of domestic violence.
Harmony House categorises domestic abuse into three areas: physical violence, psychological abuse and sexual assault.
Physical violence includes, among others, beating, slapping, choking and hitting. The charity also includes the threat of physical violence as a form of domestic abuse. Psychological abuse is defined as coercive behaviour which might cause someone emotional harm. It might be a verbal attack or it could play out in the form of emotionally manipulative behaviour.
Harmony House advises people concerned about a friend or relative to look for any physical signs of abuse, such as bruises, scratches or wounds, but also to consider their state of mind. Psychological symptoms might include depression or anxiety. The charity also advises people to consider whether someone appears withdrawn and socially isolated, as this could be a sign that their partner is abusing them.
Sexual assault is defined as any form of sexual contact that occurs without consent.
Where to get help
The Family and Child Protective Services Units (FCPSUs) of the Social Welfare Department are specialised units manned by experienced social workers. www.swd.gov.hk/vs/english/welfare
Harmony House is a women and children’s shelter in Kwun Tong. www.harmonyhousehk.org
RainLily is a one-stop crisis centre for victims of sexual violence. www.rainlily.org.hk
Samaritans Hong Kong offers 24-hour support to anyone suffering abuse. www.samaritans.org.hk
Women Helping Women Hong Kong supports a wide range of programmes designed for those who have experienced violence and abuse. www.whwhk.org
The Hong Kong Women’s Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls in Hong Kong. www.twfhk.org