By Jia You
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
The death of a young Chinese bride in 2009 under the fists of her husband shocked the public about the lack of protection for victims of domestic violence. Now, lawmakers have a national anti-domestic violence bill to consider.
A 2010 study by the Shenzhen Intermediate Court found three-quarters of domestic violence lawsuits fail in court. Most cases fall apart because of insufficient evidence, says Lai, a judge at Shenzhen Intermediate Court who declined to provide a first name.
"Many victims don't save the evidence or call the police in time, which makes it difficult to differentiate domestic violence from normal family quarrel," Lai says.
But Lv, who has represented victims in lawsuits, argues that the court puts too much burden of proof on the plaintiff. The court requires victims to show police records of violence and medical records proving abuse-related harm. As a matter of practice, most police records simply say "family conflict, reconciled" without any mention of the violence committed, Lv says. Others tend to be a one-sided record of the victim's story without any input from the spouse, which disqualifies them as evidence.
As a result, many victims turn elsewhere for help; sometimes to the local Women's Federation or the employer of their abusive spouse. Some resort to violence against their abusers.
Even in a successful lawsuit, victims have a slim chance of getting any compensation. The country's marriage law stipulates victims of domestic violence can get more property in a divorce. But most victims only get a one-time payment of their medical bills or a mental-damage compensation of around $1,500, says Tuo Hongmei, a lawyer at Guanghe Law Firm in Shenzhen.
"Most judges will automatically go for 50-50 in property division for fear of complaints," Tuo says. "Clients are already lucky to get a divorce."
The grim economic prospect after a divorce inhibits victims from seeking help, especially in big cities where jobs are tight and living expenses are high, says Li Xiaofeng, a sociologist at Shenzhen University. The national inflation rate is expected to hit 5 percent this year, and prices of oil and pork are soaring.
"Many victims are housewives without any job skills," Li says. "Without economic independence, their hardship will continue after divorce."
Peking University's Lv says raising awareness among judges must go hand-in-hand with the legislation. He had a successful case this year where his client got about $8,000 for mental-damage compensation, a rare sum among domestic violence cases. The key, he says, was a sympathetic female judge.
"Of course we want judges to be fair," Lv says. "But judges with a gender consciousness tend to do more justice in these cases."
In 2010, after the high-profile death of Dong, the Center for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services started projects in Hu'nan and Yunnan provinces to educate judges and the police about domestic violence. The government needs to step in and spread the training across the country, Lv says.
"Dong's tragic death shocked the police as well," he says. "She was a victim herself, but hopefully her tragedy will bring some real progress."
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Jia You, currently reporting from China, is a rising sophomore at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
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