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Pulling No Punches Against Domestic Abuse

Li Li is a waitress in a Beijing restaurant. She ran away from home a decade ago to escape the beatings from her mother. Now in her late 20's, she is considering running away again - this time to escape her violent husband.

"I am so depressed with marriage and family life," says Li, who got married three years ago. "I wonder why violence and loneliness has shadowed me all my life." Li has already sought the help of Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center, a non-profit women's organization in Beijing, by calling its hotline.

The Maple center has been receiving about 1,000 complaints against domestic violence a year since launching its hotline in 2004. There are dozens of such hotline services in the country through which women can report domestic abuse. Though traditionally regarded as a private family affair for years, wife-beating is now socially and legally unacceptable.

"In traditional Chinese society, men played the dominant role inside as well outside the house, and women were expected to be their subordinates," says Maple center director Hou Zhiming. "As a result, domestic violence was hushed up or even tolerated."

But now there is a new factor that could increase domestic violence: the global economic downturn. The loss of jobs or the fear of losing work can make even the coolest person tense, forcing him/her to vent his/her anger on family members.

"Though complaints received by the center haven't risen sharply in the past two months, the financial crisis has begun to hurt China, putting many families under pressure and in situations like this it's common for one spouse to blame the other," Hou says.

"Migrant workers' families will be especially vulnerable to domestic violence in the near future because some of them have already lost their jobs and others have seen their family income go down."

The latest casualty of domestic violence was a 33-year-old woman, who was beaten to death by her jobless husband in Haikou, capital of Hainan Province, in August. For years, their neighbors had heard them fighting but none of them though of reporting the matter to police, Hainan Special Zone News reported. They did not intervene to solve their dispute, either. It is only after the woman died and her husband was arrested did they realize the gravity of the situation.

The case has aroused great concern among the online community. Their worry is not baseless because a recent survey shows one-third of the country's about 267 million families have witnessed domestic violence. Complaints against domestic violence, too, have increased to an average of 40,000 a year from 2005 to 2007 - more than double that of 2000 - according to All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) figures. Not surprisingly, more than 94 percent of the victims are women.

"Domestic violence has become one of the main reasons for divorce. One-fourth of the country's divorce cases are triggered by domestic abuse," says ACWF Vice-Chairperson Mo Wenxiu. Earlier this year, Mo called for incorporating a domestic violence prevention law into the country's legislation plan for the next five years.

Chen Benjian, director of China Law Society's Center for Combating Domestic Violence, agrees: "Above all, we need an anti-domestic violence law that experts have been seeking for more than five years."

"Studies show domestic violence, physical and mental alike, can take place in families of any social class," Chen says. "Living without violence is the right of every family member. Community intervention can greatly help reduce such violence," Chen says.

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