Reducing China’s one in four
Yuan Feng is an advocate of women's rights and gender equality in China, having dedicated most of her career to such causes since the mid-1980s. She is also the newest board member of the Kering Foundation. Our K reporter caught up with her on a recent visit to London.
Among China’s 630 million women, twenty-five to thirty per cent of the married ones are subjected to domestic violence from their spouses during their lifetime. Every year, the Women’s Federation hotline handles around 50,000 cases of domestic violence (government data).
However this is a problem that is frequently brushed under the carpet.
In 2011 an American woman married to a Chinese, Kim Lee, made headlines around the world after using a micro-blogging site to post photographs of the bruises her husband had given her.
Two years later Li Yang, a household name in China, thanks to his famous Crazy English language school, was served with a restraining order and asked to pay Kim compensation for subjecting her to years of physical abuse. The case made waves in China, not so much for the severe beatings and the kick she suffered while heavily pregnant, but for the sheer bravery that made her a heroine to other women in similar situations.
Chinese law has very little provision for victims of domestic abuse. Indeed, when Kim first approached the police they had no idea what to do with her. At one point during her ordeal, Yuan Feng, who had met Kim at a workshop in a later evening, offered her to stay at her home.
“Usually I keep my work and my private life separate but in this case I really had no choice because she had no place to go.”
It’s a characteristically selfless statement from Feng, who began her career as a journalist working for the state-sanctioned People’s Daily, before a keen interest in women’s rights led her to co-found the Media Monitor for Women network in 1996, an organisation that advocates for more participation of women in journalism.
She began working in the field of domestic violence in 1999, after she joined a group of activists to form the Anti-Domestic Violence Network in Beijing. One of their roles is to provide practical guidelines for doctors, police, judges, community workers and journalists.
Training of this sort is badly needed in a country where over a third of all women in relationships have suffered some form of domestic abuse. With a population of 1.35 billion, China may be the world’s next superpower but it continues to be a deeply patriarchal society. In fact the opening up of the market and the privatisation of land has exacerbated the problem. “Women in rural areas face many challenges in terms of land rights, especially with the fast development of urbanisation” explains Feng. “If women have more of a share of the property the risk of domestic violence can be reduced significantly.”
Another big problem is the general attitude towards domestic abuse.
“Most people think that if they’re not perpetrators themselves they can tolerate other people’s violent behaviour”
she says. “There is indifference to some victims, that makes them feel helpless so they sometimes don’t want to report it or seek help.”
Accessing support is tricky: “There are shelters but information is not well distributed and the facilities are very poor, with no emotional, psychological or child support. Another problem is that police officers haven’t had proper training in how to handle these cases. This causes problems because if they respond to a call improperly or if they behave improperly, the abuse can continue and even get worse.”
During Feng’s twenty-year career she’s helped set up initiatives like the Gender and Development Network, which promotes gender equality via training and social activities, and is behind the Blue Books on Women’s Development, which contain reports on Chinese NGOs. It’s this expertise that she hopes will bring something valuable to the table.
Feng’s appointment to the board of the Kering Foundation last June signals a strengthening of its work in combatting violence against women (particularly domestic) in Asia Pacific, “Last year the Kering Foundation got several proposals from NGOs in China, so I think by offering my opinions on these schemes I can help the Foundation give more help to independent NGOs.
That’s the neediest sector - there are women’s organisations sponsored by the government, but the independent NGOs have very limited resources.”
Such actions come at a pivotal time: in November last year China’s first national law on domestic violence was drafted. It’s been controversial, however, as it only applies to married couples.
Feng herself has mixed feelings about it, “On one hand it’s a good step forward because it’s a comprehensive law that includes education, prevention, and different government organisations taking responsibility, but there are so many shortcomings. The law doesn’t include relationships or former relationships, for example divorced couples or couples who have broken up.
Many tragedies happen between divorced couples because the perpetrators feel they have the right to control their ex-partner physically, sexually, emotionally or financially.”
It also has a very narrow definition of domestic violence, covering only physical and emotional violence, leaving out sexual violence and financial control. With regards to restraining orders, these can only be issued when the victim has filed for divorce or has a lawsuit pending. “If you don’t want to encourage people to get divorced, why are you putting restraining orders and divorce together?” says Feng. “These issues need to be overcome otherwise the law fails to protect the people who need to be protected.”
There is a lot of work to be done, but Feng remains optimistic. “I believe if we keep working and we get more understanding and support things can be changed, because many people don’t want this kind of inequality to continue. Most people hope to enjoy an equal and mutually respectful relationship.”