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November 25, 2010

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Society's ugly secret

EXPERTS say victims of domestic abuse must take a "zero tolerance" approach toward physical aggression and that sufferers now have more ways of reaching out to get help. Zhang Qian reports.

Lisa Lin is washing dishes although it is 1am. Tears stream out of her puffy eyes and her face is red and swollen because her husband slapped several times for not washing the dishes.

Lin, a 28-year-old freelance English tutor, went to bed earlier than usual that day due to painful menstruation. Her husband returned home from a business trip at midnight, dragged her out of bed and was angry because there were unwashed dishes in the kitchen. She complained that he disturbed her sleep. He then started slapping her.

Domestic violence has been a heated issue in China since the TV series "Don't Talk to Strangers" aroused wide concerns years ago. Many people were surprised at the time to learn that domestic violence doesn't occur only in remote areas with ancient traditions, but also in educated families in big cities. And it is happening in Shanghai, too.

Lin is only one of thousands of victims. Today is International Anti-domestic Violence Day, and experts are calling for "zero tolerance" among victims. They are quick to assert that tolerating violence will likely lead to more violence in the future.

Domestic violence can be broadly defined as a pattern of abusive behaviors by one or both partners in an intimate relationship, which includes marriage, family, cohabitation, dating and friends. It has many forms including physical aggression - hitting, kicking, biting, restraining, slapping, shoving, throwing objects - or other threats.

Domestic violence also includes sexual abuse, emotional abuse, controlling or domineering behavior, intimidation and economic deprivation.

Lu Ronggen, deputy chief of the Equity Department of the Shanghai Women's Federation, says domestic violence occurs in about 13 percent of marriages in Shanghai although he cautions this number is only based on direct reports by victims to either the police or the federation. That means the real number could be surprisingly huge.

The percentage was about 37 percent in 2001 when "domestic violence" was first written into the Marriage Law.

Although the percentage is not as low as most people may think, Lu says it shows more victims are aware of seeking help when they are in need. Few people understood domestic violence dozens of years ago and even fewer would call police for help.

Though most reported cases involve middle-aged people from working-class background, Lu says domestic violence occurs among people of all ages, regardless of their economic status and education.

Many educated victims tend to save face, pretend everything is fine and refuse to get outside help. They tend to talk to close friends or relatives rather than the police or social workers. And since many are financially independent, these victims are more likely to solve the problem - usually a divorce - on their own, Lu says.

"Women and children are usually the victims," says Lu. "And most domestic violence cases involve long-term repeated violence rather than a one-time thing."

Take Lin's case for example. She says the violence began three months into her marriage and it was always about trivial things like not cooking dinner, not doing the laundry or folding clothes the wrong way.

"Sometimes I am just so confused about what I did wrong again," says Lin, who has been married for three years.

Lu says perpetrators of domestic violence often are under a great deal of pressure, usually from work.

"This makes them like a volcano about to erupt," he says. "Any little thing will likely trigger the eruption."

There are also cases that involve alcohol. Businessman Jack Wang, 29, is normally an attentive husband who fulfills every request of his wife when sober. Yet when he gets drunk, he changes completely and hits and kicks his wife.

Zhang Chuhan, a psychologist with her own consulting practice, says the persons who choose violence "are usually insecure and lack confidence."

"They don't have good communication skills," Zhang says. "When they don't know how to reach their communication goal, they use violence."

Apart from some inherent factors such as short temper, family history plays an important role in domestic violence. Experts have found that children who grow up in an abusive environment tend to use violence more than others, according to Lu.

Zhang says this can lead to a vicious cycle.

"The kid who saw his father beating his mother is more likely to beat his wife although he may have hated the scene when he was young," Zhang says. "And it is also common in cases where a man beats his son, even though he hated being beaten by his father.

"They see it as an ordinary way to solve problems among family members, or they just don't know any other effective ways to deal with issues," she adds.

Lin says her husband has never admitted to committing domestic violence. He thinks only severe aggression like striking and kicking is domestic abuse. She says her husband believes slapping is just part of an ordinary family quarrel, like what his father did to his mother.

Lawyer Jason Yao says it can be difficult to prove domestic abuse cases as some forms of aggression are not considered crimes. Victims who call the police or the women's federation can have their wounds checked and a report made, which can be used as evidence in a criminal case.

However, Yao says most victims don't want to go to the extreme of putting their spouse in jail, thus most who do the wound inspection only use it for evidence to get a divorce.

Yet there are also victims who choose to tolerate the violence, hoping that their partner will change some day.

Lin falls into this category.

"He will compensate me after every fight," Lin says. "Though he never speaks of it, I know he feels guilty. And that usually flushes away all my grievances. He is my man after all."

Psychologist Zhang says tolerating the violence will only pave the way for further abuse.

"Lacking effective communication skills, the person chooses violence as his last weapon; surprisingly, he succeeds. With the violence, he makes you shut up and do what he orders without any resistance," Zhang says. "And from this moment, he gets confirmation (maybe subconsciously) that violence is effective."

This pattern of behavior is why Lu from the women's federation recommends "zero tolerance."

Victims should say "no" to domestic violence the very first time it occurs.

However, both Zhang and Lu suggest avoiding further provoking the partner with insults or by fighting back. They think the best thing to do is call a friend or family member for help, or even the police if necessary.

They also recommend a victim talk to their partner when they are in a calm state of mind. The victim needs to state that violence will not be accepted and that their partner needs to change or they will end the relationship.

Psychological counseling is recommended for couples who want to work through their problems and save their marriage. Yet, if the guilty party does not realize their mistake and is not open to counseling, change can never happen, Zhang says.

Facts about abusive behavior

Domestic violence refers to the abusive behavior that causes physical, psychological and sexual damage to family members. This includes beating, binding, confinement, persecution and other damaging behavior, according to the new Chinese Marriage Law, which was released in 2001.

In couples, it usually results from poor communication skills on the part of one or both sides, according to psychologist Zhang Chuhan.

It also includes emotional abuse of family members with typical behaviors like cold shoulder, contempt and estrangement. These types of behavior usually cause as much damage as physical violence although it is more difficult to measure.

Child abuse is also a big problem in China. It composes quite a large number of domestic violence cases. Many child abuse cases are not reported, as it is widely seen as a natural way of "family education," says Lu Ronggen, deputy chief of the Equity Department of the Shanghai Women's Federation.

The expression "a dutiful son was born under the rod" has been a dominant principle for family education in China since ancient times. It is similar to the English phrase "spare the rod, spoil the child."

However, due to the one-child policy in China, many urban families have dropped the principle, but it is still prevalent among families with lower education in remote areas. And the problem is also common among migrant families in cities like Shanghai, Lu says. There have been cases of a parent beating their child to death in the past.

"Environment can be very influential in the cases," says Lu. "Although there are still quite a number of urban families who beat their kids when they don't behave, the damage won't be severe as other family members or neighbors will try to dissuade it. But when it happens in a community of migrant workers, where everybody sees it as a natural way of education, things can easily go to extremes."

Since most children do not know how to seek help, teachers have started to play an important role in protecting kids, Lu says. There have been many cases where teachers have found wounds on a child and reported it to appropriate organizations.

Different ways to get help

Domestic violence is no longer a taboo topic in which the victim suffers in silence. A system was set up in Shanghai in recent years to help victims protect themselves.

Experts suggest taking the following steps:

Try all means to protect yourself during the violence. The victim should call for help as soon as possible, including calling the police when necessary.

Search for help from an appropriate organization. Neighborhood committees are usually good places to start. The Shanghai Women's Federation has set up a department for solving domestic problems.

Most police stations in Shanghai have a special counter for victims to report domestic abuse cases.

The women's federation also welcomes report from male victims.

Educating the individual who took violent action is the first step these organizations take. The federation will also provide psychological counseling to victims. In severe cases, the police may detain the violent person.

If education doesn't work and the victim faces the threat of continuing violence, they can apply for shelter at the women's federation.

The shelter, which was established in late 2009, provides accommodation, medical help, legal aid and counseling to victims of domestic abuse.

Victims can also apply for a wound inspection when they think it is necessary.


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