The beatings began a month after the wedding, she says. For more than two years the kicking, pushing and slapping continued, as Ma Shuyun’s husband — who had wanted a son — abused not only his wife but also their baby daughter.
Late one night, after Ma sought help from Beijing police, her husband — helped by her mother-in-law — wrapped her in a duvet, sat on top of her and choked her until she began to lose consciousness.
Afterwards police detained not Ma’s husband but her older brother, who had rushed to save his sister, fighting off her assailant.
“They didn’t arrest my husband, because they thought my injuries weren’t serious enough,” said the 36-year-old. “They thought it was just a marital dispute.”
Ma’s husband is now seeking a divorce, custody of their daughter and monthly child support payments of 1,500 yuan (US$242) from her. A court rejected her own lawsuit against him for lack of evidence, and her brother has been in jail for the past eight months.
The story is commonplace in China, where domestic violence is estimated to occur in a quarter of families and authorities are reluctant to intervene in what they deem a “private” matter, according to Hou Zhiming, a veteran women’s rights advocate who has counselled Ma.
Almost two decades ago Beijing hosted a landmark World Conference on Women that laid out a plan for promoting women’s rights across the globe.
But China itself remains without a national domestic violence law, and the country’s Anti-Domestic Violence Network (ADVN), its first and largest umbrella group on the issue, has announced its own surprise dissolution.
“It will have a detrimental impact, because when it comes to professional anti-domestic violence work nationwide, of course the more power we have, the better,” said Hou, whose Beijing-based Maple Women’s Psychological Counselling Centre was one of the ADVN’s 72 members.
Less than two decades ago, physical abuse was not even acceptable as grounds for divorce in China. Then, in 2001, the marriage law was amended to explicitly ban domestic violence for the first time.
But while attitudes have changed, abuse still takes place in 24.7 percent of Chinese families, according to the All China Women’s Federation, which is linked to the ruling Communist Party.
“When I started working here 18 or 20 years ago, around the time of the Beijing Women’s Conference, you couldn’t talk to the government about it; it was like it didn’t exist,” said Joan Kaufman, director of the Columbia Global Centers East Asia, a branch of Columbia University in New York.
“They were in complete denial. But over the years (advocates worked) to take it beyond just being considered a private family matter and not a crime,” said Kaufman, who helped set up the ADVN.
But existing laws do not define domestic violence, so that many victims — if they report abuse at all — are shuffled from police to women’s federation to neighborhood committee, with authorities reluctant to intervene unless serious injury is involved.
China’s Communist-controlled parliament, the National People’s Congress, agreed in 2012 to consider a draft domestic violence law written by activists, but it has yet to be acted on.
Feng Yuan, a founder member of the ADVN, said: “Women just worry about it, because they’re not making progress. It’s not so open.”