Originally from remote Sichuan province, Feng Yuan worked as a journalist for 20 years striving to be a voice for gender equality. In 2000, she cofounded the Anti-Domestic Violence Network (ADVN). With a focus on engaging and educating people across disciplines, ADVN works to change the Chinese public’s view of domestic violence (DV), while advocating for stronger laws to protect victims. Based in Beijing, ADVN’s interdisciplinary platform has been used in 28 provinces.
Q. DV in China seems to be epidemic. How do Chinese view the issue?
A. We did a survey on the prevalence of DV and found about one-third of families experience it. When we say DV it’s not limited to just physical.
One woman who was interviewed explained how her partner abused her physically and mentally. The interviewer asked, ‘Do you think this is DV?’ She said no. This example shows that many people suffer from abuse but they don’t see it as DV because in the traditional Chinese vocabulary there is no such word. The gender system [and DV] is not just based on physical or economic strength. It depends on mentalities, social networks, public opinion, social norms and its structure and policies.
Q. How did ADVN start?
A. In 1998, a group of around 10 women started to discuss how we could address the gender based violence issue in china. At that time we thought DV against women was a good entry point. We started a pilot project on how to build multi-sector partnerships to deal with the issue and how to do capacity building with different professionals like police officers, medical professionals, journalists, lawyers and judges, community workers and mediators.
Q. With what perspective does ADVN come at the issue of DV?
A. We believe we can only deal with this as a power issue. DV is from a disparity of power, an unequal relationship between men and women. With that understanding we can help women and also help the perpetrators to get out of the trap of the old gender issues.
Every person involved in our projects gets gender training. We think that is a better way to ensure that they have the proper attitude to work with this issue.
Q. What legal implications are there for DV in China and how has ADVN advocated for change?
A. In 2001, DV became a concept in marriage law; however, it is very abstract. The government’s handling is much better than before because at least there is a law to prohibit DV, but still progress is behind the demand and the service is far from sufficient.
From 2003 to 2009 we submitted two legislation drafts to deputies of the National People’s Congress to push for a specific law on the prevention and punishment of DV. The abstract principles in the current Marriage Law are not enough to handle the issue properly. In our drafts of the law, we drew a comprehensive structure for the legal responsibilities and mandates for different state departments as well as related organizations.
We also started publishing training manuals on how to deal with this issue for different professions such as judicial mediators, journalists, medical professionals and community workers. For journalists we created guidelines on how to cover the DV and other gender violence issues—how to not hurt the victim a second time, how to deal with the privacy issue, etc.
Q. What reactions have you had to your training?
A. At the beginning, many people were resistant. They said we were taking it too seriously. After the training many people realized it really is a problem.
Our work has gotten very positive responses and many organizations have invited us to do training, but China is so big—the scale we’ve reached is limited. There are still many people who need training. For example, when Kim Lee (an American woman abused by her Chinese husband that brought China’s DV issues to the national and international media) went to the police, they didn’t know how to deal with the issue properly.
Q. Since ADVN started, have you seen a change in how Chinese view DV?
A. Yes and no. Yes in that DV has become more visible so more people are aware of it, and more women dare to speak out and seek help. Even some school children know about it.
Also my answer is no! In China we have such a big population and many women still cannot get out of the violence cycle because they feel they cannot get help and that they cannot be understood. The fear comes for different reasons—not only the fear of losing face. Some fear they’ll break up their marriage. Some fear what will happen to their children if they speak out or what will happen to relationships with their extended family. Some fear it might result in more severe violence. Also social support and services are lacking. Many police and community workers still treat DV as a private mater, a family issue.
Some women even internalize the gender norms—saying that’s life. Maybe I deserve this treatment.
Q. Are there options for women in abusive situations?
A. On paper there are several hundred shelters for women but very few women go to those so-called shelters because they are run by the government and have very unrealistic criteria. For example, they ask for your ID and employer’s certification. Most women only seek help from friends and relatives; however, that is just temporary. Usually friends and friends don’t want to bear the responsibility for breaking a marriage.
The situation is better for urban women. For rural women there is almost no way out. If a rural woman divorces her husband, she has nowhere to stay because her natural family’s house has probably been given to her brother. They cannot usually stay at their husband’s village. She needs that marriage for shelter.
Q. As DV issues are still very prevalent, how will ADVN move forward?
A. We are continuing to push China to have a more comprehensive DV law to prevent and deal with the issue. We are going to collect cases to advocate for a better understanding of how to implement such laws, how the state can be accountable. We will also continue to do capacity building to better help women survivors, including training for people who help survivors. We want to work more with school administrators, teachers, and service deliverers on how to identify the children who are exposed to DV, how to intervene and how to prevent them from becoming perpetrators and victims.
We also want to continue our work with journalists. We think the media is a very powerful mechanism that can help people or enhance traditional gender stereotypes.