Chinese courts rarely believe women’s claims of domestic violence in divorce cases

Society & Culture

A new study by a law firm finds that Chinese judges continue to trivialize intimate partner violence and blame its victims, despite society’s growing awareness of the issue.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Domestic violence advocates and lawyers in China have long suggested that there is a troubling pattern in divorce cases: Too often, they assert, Chinese courts deny or ignore women’s claims of intimate partner violence, leaving the victims unable to seek compensation for physical injuries and other losses. While anecdotal stories are plenty, a new study from Beijing Qianqian Law Firm has captured in numbers how the phenomenon has played out in courts across the country.

The nonprofit law firm specializes in representing Chinese women and children who have suffered abuse. For the study (in Chinese), researchers at the firm sorted through published court opinions available online between 2018 and 2020 and created a data set of 1,014 civil cases that involve allegations of domestic violence. They sought to find out the extent to which Chinese courts were discrediting claims of domestic abuse, especially in cases where the plaintiffs were women. The study broke down the types of cases by divorce filings, divorce cases with compensation claims, and lawsuits where abusers were accused of violating the plaintiffs’ “rights of life, body, and health.”

Judges don’t respond to domestic violence claims

According to the study, of 844 divorce cases without compensation claims, courts only supported claims of domestic violence in 54 cases. In 346 cases, judges did not respond to such claims in their decisions. In 244 cases, judges determined that the alleged assault never occurred, citing reasons like insufficient evidence, or that the complaint should be treated as a family dispute. 

In 94 cases where plaintiffs asked for monetary compensation, 78 of them described multiple incidents and forms of domestic abuse, including assault, verbal abuse, and threats. Although 51 of them submitted relevant evidence such as police reports, photographs, and medical records, courts only credited reports of domestic violence in 10 cases.

The study also found that, of 94 cases where plaintiffs accused their partners of violating “personality rights” by inflicting violence on them, courts supported the claims in just 15 cases. Even when courts ordered compensation, plaintiffs were rarely paid the full amount of money asked for, as judges believed that the victims were partially responsible for “not handling the dispute properly” or “being too impulsive in moments of stress.”

The researchers identified several factors that contributed to the staggering rate of disbelief among Chinese judges when it comes to domestic violence cases and offered suggestions. They urged the Supreme People’s Court to clarify the difference between “domestic abuse” and “family dispute” on legal terms and give judges liberty to investigate when plaintiffs are unable to collect evidence on their own.

Under current rules, the onus of proof is on plaintiffs when they make claims of domestic abuse. To lower legal barriers for them, the researchers proposed that the burden of proof should be reversed, meaning that instead of making plaintiffs prove that their allegations are true, the accused should have to prove that abuse never happened. 

The limitations of China’s anti-domestic-violence law

Based on their findings, the researchers conclude that although China’s anti-domestic-violence law had expanded the legal options available to victims and raised public awareness about the issue, many judges still needed to be educated about gender equality, and persuaded to stop downplaying domestic abuse or blaming victims. The law firm also called on Chinese lawmakers to expand the legal definition of domestic violence so it includes nonconsensual sex and financial abuse. In many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, marital rape is a valid grounds for divorce and a punishable offense. But China is among nearly three dozen countries in the world where spouses cannot file a criminal complaint against their partners for nonconsensual sex.

Previously, not even physical abuse was accepted as reasonable grounds for divorce, until the marriage law was amended in 2001 to ban domestic violence. In 2016, when China passed its first anti-domestic-violence law, the legislation was widely heralded as a major victory for women’s rights activists, who have pointed out that an estimated one in four women in the country suffer from some type of intimate partner abuse.  

“The law has brought a number of changes in the desired directions, such as clarifying responsibilities between different authorities in protecting victims of domestic violence and making it easier for them to file for restraining orders that can force abusers to move out of their places,” Féng Yuán 冯媛, a co-founder of Beijing Equality, a non-government group dedicated to monitoring and combating violence against Chinese women, told SupChina. 

But at the same time, the limitations of the law and the shortcomings of its enforcement were obvious, according to Feng. “Outside courts, there are wide discrepancies in how local police officers handle reports of domestic abuse,” she said. As for the state-run All-China Women’s Federation, which has offices across the country and is tasked with safeguarding women’s legitimate rights and interests in the face of domestic violence, Feng noted that there’s “a lack of empathy” among some of its employees, who “are not motivated enough to provide help to victims.”

These systemic flaws exist alongside growing barriers to divorce, such as a 30-day “cooling-off” period required by Chinese law for couples looking to part ways. 

Meanwhile, some women face the direst of consequences: A 2020 report (in Chinese) by Beijing Equality showed that more than 900 women had died at the hands of their husband or partners since China’s anti-domestic-violence law came into effect. In one of the most high-profile and disturbing instances, Tibetan video influencer Lhamo 拉姆 died in 2020 after her ex-husband set her on fire during a livestream. In the years leading up to the incident, Lhamo had called the police multiple times when abuse occured, but her complaints weren’t taken seriously, and she never received the protection she sought. 

Feng, whose organization manages a hotline specifically geared toward aiding female victims of domestic abuse, said that Lhamo’s experience was rare but not uncommon. “From time to time, we receive calls from victims who are constantly failed by the system,” Feng added. “Although there have been a few cases like Lhamo’s that made national headlines and generated discussion, the overall media coverage of domestic violence cases is actually on the decline. We hope that more reporting on this issue will make officials more aware of the severity of the problem and the public sentiment toward it.”