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27 March 2020

Defending Rights in the Time of COVID-19: WHRDs tackle domestic violence in China

By FLD East Asia Team

In mid-February 2020, as the coronavirus outbreak led to cities and counties across China imposing strict lockdown, a mother surnamed Wang and her two young children, with luggage in tow, walked for almost five hours in an attempt to return to their hometown in a neighbouring county after she was beaten by her abusive ex-husband. She called the police who refused to dispatch officers to help but instead told her to ask relatives to collect them, without offering to issue a special permit which was needed to travel between counties during lockdown. In the end, Wang’s relatives were left with no choice but to convince her ex-husband to drive the mother and children to the county border where they were picked up by their relatives.

That a victim must rely on their abuser to reach safety is a sobering indication of how far China still has to go in effectively addressing domestic violence, despite the coming into force of an anti-domestic violence law almost four years ago. Domestic violence is a systematic and widespread crime in China. According to a 2016 survey by the state-organised umbrella group All China’s Women Federation (ACWF), among 270 million families in China, 30% of women who are married have experienced domestic violence. On average, a woman is beaten by her husband every 7.4 seconds, and 40% of femicides resulted from domestic violence. Every year, 157,000 women in China commit suicide and 60% of these suicides are attributed to domestic violence.

Since villages, counties and cities across China began imposing severe movement restrictions on residents in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, domestic media and women human rights defenders and organisations have reported an up-tick in reported incidents of domestic violence. According to Wan Fei, a retired police officer and the founder of an anti-domestic violence organisation in Jianli county in Hubei province, which has a population of 1.56 million, local police received triple the number of domestic violence complaints in February 2020 compared to the year before. A majority of the complaints involved husbands assaulting wives while a small fraction involved parental violence against children or violence against the elderly.

Wan Fei told reporters that the fear induced by the scale of the outbreak, the extended quarantine and economic fallout have heightened risks of domestic abuse. Government resources have also been stretched very thin, thereby weakening the support systems for survivors of domestic violence. Movement restrictions and the closing down of accommodation facilities have made escaping from abusers or seeking temporary shelters even more difficult.

Despite challenges and risks, concerned individuals and human rights defenders have continued to speak up and take action, online and offline, to combat domestic violence. For them, the urgency to act is especially acute given the heightened risk as a result of the outbreak.

On 1 March 2020, feminist activists launched an online campaign entitled “Little Vaccine Against Domestic Violence” (反家暴小疫苗). In a week, the campaign garnered over 1,000 signatories. Signatories are asked to prevent and combat domestic violence by:

  • Not perpetrating domestic violence;
  • Discouraging domestic violence if they see or hear it, or reporting incidents to the police, district authorities or women’s federation;
  • Printing out or handwriting a copy of “Advocacy Letter to Neighbours on Combating Domestic Violence” [see below for an English translation by Front Line Defenders] and taping it in public visible spots in your local community, such as on the wall along stairways or inside elevators; and
  • Submitting questions or essays on domestic violence to a Weibo (a Twitter-like social media platform) account established to campaign against domestic violence

“Little Vaccines” have since uploaded to Weibo photos of the “advocacy letter” they posted in their own communities in over 23 cities across 15 provinces in China. As of writing, the campaign has garnered over 3,500 signatories.

Women human rights defenders have also used online platforms to share advice, practical strategies and research for those who wish to take actions in their daily lives to fight domestic violence.

In an on-going diary chronicling her life under lockdown in Wuhan, feminist social worker Guo Jing frequently highlights the heightened risks of domestic violence during the coronavirus outbreak. She urged her readers to understand that “a victim of domestic violence often could not immediately leave her abuser. She may face many practical obstacles—she may lack the economic resources to raise her child alone; she is worried that she may face even more violence if she asks for a divorce; she may not have supporters around her. If she cannot leave her abuser right away, please understand her difficulties and do not scold her. We must strive to support her and not make decisions on her behalf.”

Feng Yuan, a senior feminist human rights defender and anti-domestic violence campaigner, shared her experience and advice in late February 2020 during a webinar entitled “What to do if I encounter domestic violence during the outbreak?” Over a thousand Internet users participated in the webinar or listened to the recording. Feng Yuan urged all those taking actions to combat domestic violence to be guided by the D-T-A-P principles:

  • Don’t look the other way when you encounter violent incidents. Don’t pretend you didn’t see or hear. Don’t just stand by and do nothing. Don’t ask “why don’t you…?” Don’t say “you should…” Don’t say “I have no ways to deal with it.” Empower survivors by giving them hope and offering a hand to come up with solutions together.
  • Think of safe and creative ways of intervention and assess the risks. We should assess the severity of any situation and what risks intervention might bring. We need to think about our own capacity and whether we can create capacity if we don’t have it already or seek help from others who are more capable.
  • Act immediately to resolve conflict and do it with dedication and empathy. Our intervention could take many forms. For example, we could inform individuals of their rights by providing information about the relevant law and how we could pursue legal means. We could knock on doors or ring the bells to stop perpetrators in the act. We could call the police and ask them to come. We could advocate for institutional and policy change by pointing out structural accountability gaps on the part of government entities who have the obligations to prevent, investigate, punish and redress domestic violence.
  • Protect survivors and do proper follow-up. Assess whether the impact of your intervention is only short-term, and assess whether any follow-up actions are needed. If so, start planning. After the initial intervention, you need to take both visible and less visible actions to sustain support to and protection for survivors.

On International Women’s Day earlier this month, Weiping, a women’s rights NGO based in China, published a new report assessing the implementation of the personal safety protection order mechanism, a type of court-issued restraining order, under the Anti-Domestic Violence Law in the city of Shanghai between March 2016 and September 2019. The findings point to barriers to implementation and indicate that, during the first 3.5 years the law has been in force::

  • 77% of applicants of personal safety protection order in the city were women while 83% of the subjects of such applications were men
  • victims on average endured domestic violence for 45.6 months before they applied for a protection order
  • the approval rate for protection order applications were 54%; 34% (21 applications) were rejected while 12% (11 applications) were withdrawn
  • among the rejected applications, 52% were rejected because of “insufficient evidence”; 15% of applicants who provided two or more types of evidence were still rejected; and more than half of the applicants did not have legal counsel.

During a national press briefing in February in Beijing on the pandemic, a top public security official spoke of how police, up to 21 February, had investigated and dealt with over 18,000 illegal acts, such as wildlife trafficking, dissemination of “false and harmful” information, and obstructing disease control efforts. The officials said 3,644 individuals had been criminally detained, 25,000 administratively detained, and 46,000 subjected to reprimand and education for these violations. There was not a single mention of domestic violence.

Under international human rights law, State obligations to respond to and eliminate gender-based violence and other forms of discrimination against women are of an immediate nature and delays cannot be justified on any grounds, including public health emergencies. In fact, the surge in reported incidents of domestic violence during the pandemic underscores the urgency for State actors to act. If the Chinese police are touting their ability to handle tens of thousands of criminal cases during the peak of the pandemic, there is a strong expectation that the government at all levels can and must act swiftly to combat domestic violence.

While it remains to be seen how the slowing down of the spread of the coronavirus in China and the gradual lifting of movement restrictions will impact on the prevalence of and state responses to domestic violence, one thing is certain is that women human rights defenders and civil society organisations will continue to step up their efforts to highlight, advocate, and empower survivors to seek justice and hold perpetrators and government officials accountable. In doing so, some will be targeted by the authorities.

As Guo Jing, the Wuhan-based feminist, said in a recent diary entry about the growing popularity of the “Little Vaccine” campaign, “the people are constantly searching for light and connection during these dark times under lockdown, without ever giving up their hope for change, their tremendous power ready to explode at any time.”

* Template for “Advocacy Letter to Neighbours in Our Local Community”


TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Translation of letter itself is by Front Line Defenders while the translation of the relevant provisions from the Anti-Domestic Violence Law, which forms part of the template, is taken from the unofficial translation by China Law Translate.

Dear neighbours in our local community,

During the [coronavirus] epidemic, in order to fight the virus together, we need to respond to the nation’s call to do what we can while staying at home. Everyone faces difficulties while family members are sheltering in a closed space where children are playing and learning and where parents are taking care of them around the clock while doing multiple chores and working from home. Perhaps this would lead to disagreements and quarrels. However, family members are the source of our warmest support and only harmony could help us overcome challenges.

I hereby call on everyone to take actions as follows:

1. Despite friction and tension among family members, we should renounce violence, insist on civilised and peaceful means of conflict resolution:

- even when children are naughty, we must not use violence against them; we need to be a good model to them and use non-violent means of communication and education to nurture our future generations

- husbands and wives should divide up house work responsibilities reasonably, based on mutual understanding and mutual support, without resorting to violence

- communicate with parents and the elderly in a respectful and patient manner, without agitation and violence

2. If you become aware of domestic violence happening in your own family or in your neighbour’s home, please try to discourage it in a timely manner. You could also report incidents to public security organs, district authorities or the women’s federation to seek their intervention.

Let us co-exist peacefully and overcome difficulties together!

From your neighbour with love,

Annex: Anti-domestic Violence Law of the People's Republic of China1

Article 2: Domestic violence as used in this Law refers to physical, psychological or other infractions between family members effected through the use of methods such as beatings, restraints, maiming, restrictions on physical liberty as well as recurrent verbal berating or intimidation.

Article 3: Family members shall help each other, love each other and live in harmony, and perform familial obligations.

Countering domestic violence is the joint responsibility of the State, society and every family.

The State prohibits domestic violence in any form.

Article 12: Guardians of minors shall carry out family education and lawfully perform guardianship and educational duties in a civilized fashion, and must not commit domestic violence.

Article 13: Victims of domestic violence, their legally-designated representatives and close family may make a complaint, give feedback or seek aid from the perpetrator's or victim's unit, residents' committee and villagers' committee, women’s federation or other relevant unit. After relevant units receive a complaint of domestic violence, feedback or a request for aid, they shall give help and disposition.

Victims of domestic violence and their legally-designated representatives or close relatives may also report cases to the public security organs, or raise a lawsuit in the people's courts.

Units or individuals discovering acts of domestic violence have the right to promptly discourage it.


1 Translation taken from China Law Translate, Accessed 23 March 2020.