NEW YORK — Although it is under-recognized and underreported, it is one of the most significant epidemics in China today. It is gender violence, manifested essentially as violence against women. This kind of violence occurs in all regions in China. It affects families of all ethnic backgrounds and social spheres, and it impacts not only families but society as a whole.

According to a national survey, one-third of the country’s 270 million households cope with domestic violence, both physical and psychological. A survey carried out by the China Law Institute in Gansu, Hunan and Zhejiang provinces found that one-third of surveyed families had witnessed family violence, and that 85 percent of victims were women. Because not only men but many women consider violence as normal part of family life, only 5 percent among those surveyed said that their marriage was unhappy.

A survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation found that domestic violence in China takes place predominantly in rural areas, in young families and in households with lower educational levels.

Although women in China have experienced significant progress in recent times, the idea that women should be in subordinate positions to men in the household and in society still persists. Also, because men consider themselves the main breadwinners, they think that they have the right to maintain order at home by using violence.

Worldwide, violence is as common a cause of death and disability as cancer is among women of reproductive age. It is also a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria put together. Public-health experts consider violence against women a public-health issue, one requiring a public-health approach.

Various cultural, economic and social factors, including shame and fear of retaliation from their partners, contribute to women’s reluctance to denounce these acts.

In China, as in other countries, domestic violence is not only widespread, but is also considered a private matter, which makes it very difficult for women to obtain appropriate judicial and police responses.

The experience of violence makes women more susceptible to a variety of health problems such as depression, suicide, and alcohol and drug abuse. Sexual violence increases women’s risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS (through forced sexual relations or because of the difficulty in persuading men to use condoms). It also increases the number of unplanned pregnancies, and may lead to various gynecological problems such as chronic pelvic pain and painful intercourse.

The World Organization Against Torture has expressed its concern regarding the high levels of violence against women worldwide. Although provisions related to domestic violence are included in several national policies and laws, there are difficulties in implementing them. According to the World Health Organization, “nearly half of women who die due to homicide are killed by their current or former husbands or boyfriends.”

In recent years, there has been some progress regarding this issue in China. Among those efforts to call attention to the situation are some roadside and subway advertisements stressing the scourge that domestic violence represents to society. At the same time, special refuges and community support groups for victims of domestic violence are becoming more numerous.

The All-China Women’s Federation has been playing a significant role in bringing domestic violence into legislation and policymaking processes. In addition, an alliance of civil society organizations has been established under a project called “Domestic Violence in China: Research, Intervention and Prevention,” which has carried out some innovative actions toward the elimination of domestic violence.

But more work has to be done if this epidemic of violence is going to be controlled. Government and community leaders should spearhead an effort to create a culture of openness and support to eliminate the stigma associated with this situation. At the same time, it is important to protect not only victims of violence but witnesses and other people at risk during investigations and prosecution from intimidations and reprisals.

Furthermore, it is necessary not only to enact but also to enforce legislation that criminalizes all forms of violence against women, including marital rape. Laws should be followed up with plans for specific national action. The government should ensure that victims of domestic violence have adequate assistance. Domestic violence is a threat to equality and justice that no civilized society should allow to exist.

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