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Beating back domestic violence

By Wen Chihua, South China Morning Post, Wednesday 28 March 2001

Domestic violence occurs in 30 per cent of mainland families, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The academy's latest finding is a chilling statistic affecting hundreds of millions, mainly women and children, and shattering the stereotypical perception of the traditionally harmonious Chinese family.

Even more alarming is an observation from Guo Jianmei, director of the Centre for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services, who believes the true percentage is even higher, since many victims fail to report beatings for fear of bringing disgrace to their families.

To break the cycle of abuse, a programme known as Domestic Violence: Research, Intervention and Prevention in China, is educating doctors and other medical professionals to help them identify abuse, assisting victims and bringing perpetrators to justice.

The domestic-violence-prevention project - funded by foreign-aid organisations including the Ford Foundation, the Swedish International Development Agency and the Norwegian Institute for Human Rights at Oslo University - chose Beijing's Tieying Hospital to pilot its project.

Hospitals become the frontline when domestic violence is not stopped in the act, because doctors can provide first-hand evidence to the court, says Li Hongtao, a professor at the Chinese Women's College in Beijing and one of the experts overseeing the programme.

Tieying Hospital was selected because of its location in an area on the southern outskirts of Beijing, which is home to a large number of rural residents and has a sizeable transient population.

The hospital receives 200,000 patients a year, many of whom are urban and rural women victims of domestic violence. We hope we can find an intervention measure that will benefit all women in the mission against violence towards them, says Chen Mingxia, the project co-ordinator and deputy director of the Marriage-Law Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Reaction from hospital doctors involved in the pilot programme has been positive. Liu Baozhen, a general practitioner at the hospital, cites a recent case where Yu Junxian, a pregnant peasant living on the outskirts of Beijing, received emergency treatment after her husband hit her.

While I was treating her, I told her she should tell me what happened. I suspected she had been physically abused, recalls Dr Liu. When she would not speak, Dr Liu gave the woman a pen and a piece of paper and told her to write down what happened.

Little by little, the doctor got the whole story: Ms Yu's husband dragged her out of bed, threw her to the ground and beat her after she had refused to have an abortion. Ms Yu wrote: He wants a son. But his brother's wife told him I'm having a baby girl. So he tried to force me to abort the child.

Instead of treating the woman and dismissing the case as a private matter between husband and wife - as is the norm for many doctors involved in such cases - Dr Liu and the hospital's other medical professionals, as well as government authorities, are being trained to help battered women free themselves from the cycle of abuse.

Dr Liu confronted Ms Yu's husband and told him if his violent behaviour did not stop, she would report him to the police. As a mother, a woman and a doctor, I can sympathise with [battered women's] sorrow. I just want to do something to help them.

The doctor says she never would have spoken to an alleged abuser or poked into a victim's family privacy had she not participated in the domestic-violence-prevention project. The project is aimed at empowering women victims like Ms Yu to speak up for themselves, says Chen Mingxia, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Ms Chen added that since last June, lectures and training programmes on gender and violence have been held for government authorities, social workers and Tieying Hospital staff. This is the first time in China that authorities and professionals alike are being specially trained to fight violence against women.

Dr Liu says the programme has been helpful in changing her approach to abuse victims. After 28 years in the medical profession, she has seen all the outward signs of domestic abuse, from bloody noses to permanent disabilities. Almost every case, she notes, involves a violent husband or intimate partner. But it was not until the training programme was offered that it occurred to me that abuse against women is a social problem rather than a simple domestic matter.

Dr Liu says before the project, her advice was not well-informed. I just told them to leave their husbands, or not to offend them.

Indeed, most mainland doctors do not usually offer help beyond medical treatment for such abuse cases. Popular thinking is that hospitals should bear only medical responsibilities, not social ones, says Tieying Hospital's director, Cui Qixiang, who also participated in the training programme.

Mr Cui says his hospital would now keep victims' medical records, provide women with psychological counselling and help them get in touch with lawyers or the police.

Violence against women is a disturbing legacy of China's ancient patriarchal society, says Ms Chen. Some archaic beliefs suggest women are far less valuable than men. For generations, she says, Chinese women have been taught to obey men. According to outdated moral values, a woman should obey her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her sons after the death of her husband.

Abused women often believe the batterings are a part of married life, or blame themselves for having done something wrong to trigger the violence, says Guo Jianmei, of the Centre for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services. As a result, victims remain silent or their relatives discourage them from coming forward and filing charges.