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Kim Lee leaves court after a session for her divorce trial in Beijing on March 22, 2012
Alexander F. Yuan—AP

When people speak up about family violence in China, they typically hear one thing: That’s a private matter. Though beating another person is technically illegal, the abuse of your spouse or child is seen as a household, rather than societal, concern; there is no nationwide law prohibiting domestic violence. Solve this yourself, survivors are told, quietly.

On Tuesday, China’s ruling Communist Party finally broke its silence on the matter. After a decades-long push by women’s-rights activists and survivors of abuse, a top government body published a draft for China’s first-ever national family violence law. Though it is just a draft, and far from comprehensive, advocates called it a necessary and important first step. “This was long over due,” says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. “It is just a draft, and it is not sufficient, but it is important and encouraging that they have actually written something down.”

What authorities outlined, and posted online, is an imperfect but ambitious plan to change the way the state handles abuse. Social organizations and individuals would have the right to report violence and police obliged to investigate claims. Those convicted would face punishment — anything from a written reprimand to up to seven years’ imprisonment should the abuse lead to serious injury or death.

That may sound like a forgone conclusion — of course the police must investigatebut, in practice, it is not. Accounts by survivors suggest that family pressure, shame, and police indifference mean that reporting abuse is rare, and legal recourse almost unheard of. In a searing essay for the New York Times, Kim Lee, an American who was beaten by her Chinese husband, recalls sitting at a police station in 2011, visibly bruised, trying to convince the duty officer to help her. They told her to calm down and go home. “As far as the police were concerned,” she writes, “no crime had occurred.”

Lee went home and posted pictures of her bruised face online. Within hours, the pictures were forwarded by some 20,000 people, she writes, and her case became national news. People took to China’s popular social-media sites to share their own stories and vent frustration. That a relatively privileged woman — a foreigner with a famous husband — could not get help spoke volumes. Like many survivors, Lee worried she would lose custody of her children, and the right to family assets, should they divorce. (In a landmark 2013 case, she was granted a divorce on grounds of domestic violence.)

This week’s draft measures could, potentially, help in similar cases. The All-China Women’s Federation estimates that 1 in 4 Chinese women has experienced domestic abuse. (Estimates from other countries are even higher.) If China pushes ahead with the legislation, makes it comprehensive, and strengthens enforcement, the police and courts would be better equipped to take action. The draft suggests that people could seek physical protection from attackers — a restraining order, for instance — a detail that Feng Yuan, founder of Equality, a Beijing-based NGO dedicated to the protection of women’s rights, called “very encouraging.”

But there are gaps. The draft mentions children, which is a good step, but does not include provisions or protections for nonmarried couples (including same-sex couples, who are not legally allowed to marry in China). And how will police officers and courts be trained to interpret and enforce the law? “There are a lot of good laws on the books in terms of rights protection in China,” says Hong Fincher, “yet those laws are not enforced.” She points to countries like India and Bangladesh. Both have decent anti-domestic-violence laws, but have made limited progress curbing abuse.

For the law to mean something, people’s attitudes must change too. Codifying a government response to family violence can help achieve that. “Domestic abuse is not a personal affair,” says Hou Zhiming, director of the Maple Women’s Psychological Counselling Centre in Beijing. “Every person has the right to oppose it, the victims do not need to keep silent.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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