Domestic Violence: The Mainstream Topic after the 1995 Conference

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Editor’s noteIn September 2014, while this topic was being edited, China’s first large-scale anti-domestic violence documentary, “China’s Anti-Domestic Violence Chronicle” aired during primetime on CCTV’s society and law channel (CCTV-12). During this short and precious moment, “anti-domestic violence” once again attracted national attention. As a mainstream topic of women’s NGOs after the World Conference on Women, “anti-domestic violence” has earned a broad audience. National legislation is in the works, a rich and diverse group of organizations and practices related to this work have been launched, and three articles have been released with “anti-domestic violence” as their theme, aiming to explore the characteristics of developing women’s NGOs working against domestic violence as well as difficulties encountered and future prospects for the organizations, in the hopes that the Chinese grassroots women’s movements continue accumulating important experience and funding.  

Today, the term “domestic violence” has become a normal part of most Chinese peoples’ vocabulary. However, at the time of the 1995 World Conference on Women, the concept of “domestic violence” was just beginning to be talked about in China. Local participants who attended the conference were completely unfamiliar with the idea, and could not find a suitable Chinese word to accurately translate the English concept. In other words, in China at the time the phenomenon of “beating one’s wife” had not been widely recognized, and the social consensus surrounding anti-domestic violence issues was non-existent. So did this concept become universally known in China and how did corresponding social movements gain such considerable achievements in little more than a decade? Some answers can be found in the strategy developed by the international feminist movement in the last twenty years of the twentieth century as well as in the strategic choices Chinese feminists made within a unique national and social relations framework.

“Opposing domestic violence” is one of the manifestations of the “Violence Against Women” movement (known below as VAW)1. The emphasis put on the question of VAW by international women’s rights movements can be traced back to the mid-1980s. The concept was first brought up at the 1985 World Conference on Women in Nairobi, but at the time it was only broadly mentioned, as the discussion focused on trafficking of women. In the following 10 years, this concept began to enter the mainstream discourse of international women’s movements, and its influence became increasingly strong. By 1993, CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women) incorporated VAW in its content, marking the concept’s mainstreaming.

“Opposing VAW” was used as the framework of the women’s movement, which had two points of strategic significance. First, violence against women is a cross-regional, cross-governmental, and cross-cultural universal phenomenon, and under the command of this subject women with different experiences can unite together to issue unified demands. Secondly, the discourse of “opposing violence against women” in addition to criticising violence in the public sphere (such as war, trafficking, and sexual harassment in the workplace), also can be used as a powerful critique of the private sphere (family) where women have suffered injustice. This particular point has gained prominence in the “anti-domestic violence” discourse”. This gives women’s right’s movements a good weapon of discourse to criticise the modern capitalist dichotomy of “the public vs. the private sphere”, an issue which is at the theoretical core of Western feminism.

Looking back at 1995, according to Chinese women’s movement activists who had only recently heard of “domestic violence” and “opposing violence against women” at the time, using the concept of “domestic violence” to lead the movement also had a third point of strategic significance: the criticism of patriarchy emanating from the private realm could “individualize” the societal problem of women’s rights., thereby depoliticizing the highly political issue of “rights”. In light of China’s specific national conditions, this discourse was more conducive to winning support for the development of grassroots activities. After this a string of grassroots movements focusing on “opposing VAW” and “opposing domestic violence” flourished in China, confirming the rationality of this strategy.

In 1994, the Changsha city Women’s Federation became China’s first Women’s Federation to advocate for anti-domestic violence legislation at the provincial level; in 1995 the Peking University Women’s Legal Studies and Service Center began representing domestic violence cases; and in the same year Hebei’s Qianxi county began a pilot program to establish a women’s legal center, to publicize the anti-domestic violence effort, and to coordinate with the local police department to intervene in domestic violence cases.

In 1997 the Ford Foundation’s five Asia-based offices organized a regional conference around the theme “The opposition of domestic violence as a public health problem” in India. A number of Chinese organizations and individuals participated in the conference, including “Rural Women”, “The Maple Women’s Hotline”, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ (CASS) law department and other organizations. At the meeting, representatives from India, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia presented their experiences working against domestic violence in each of their respective countries, including multi-sectoral institutional cooperation to establish domestic violence centers. After the meeting, Chinese participants began to plan and prepare to carry out similar work in China.

Meanwhile, the All-China Women’s Federation also began to carry out anti-domestic violence work throughout the country. But at the time, the Women’s Federation did not have the same monopoly over administrative and economic resources it had before. Through the accumulating power of the civil sector, the emerging issue of “domestic violence” began to surge forward.

In 1999, a group of experts and scholars in Beijing formed the “Anti-Domestic Violence Network” (ADVN), the convener was none other than the CASS Law department professor Chen Mingxia, who attended the India conference. This new network combined the power of existing gender equality organizations, incorporating previously established civil organizations (including “Maple Women”, “Rural Women”, the Peking University Women Legal and Research Center and others), the Academy of Social Sciences, University-level academic research centers, and the Beijing Women’s Federation into the network. However, at the beginning stages of its development this network organization was very lose. It received project funding support from international development agencies such as the Ford Foundation, Oxfam Netherlands, the Swedish International Development Agency and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.

In 2002, experts from the “anti-domestic violence network” participated in the production of the television series broadcast on CCTV, “Don’t talk to strangers”. It met strong reactions from the public, and perpetrator figure, “An Jiahe”, played by Feng Yuanzheng, was described as having had “a deep impact on people’s hearts”. This is a highly successful example of a social movement influencing popular culture. Since then, “domestic violence” has officially entered the public discourse, and the recognition of “domestic violence” has moved from beyond the realm of scholars and movement leaders to become subject in popular culture. Conversely, this has strengthened the breakthroughs of women’s NGOs focusing on anti-domestic violence and has brought pressure and impetus for anti-domestic violence to enter the legislative and public spheres.


  1. See Kaufman, Joan. 2012. “The Global Women’s Movement and Chinese Women’s Rights.” Journal of Contemporary China 21 (76) (July): 585–602. 

In Brief

The article describes how the concept of “anti-domestic violence” was introduced to China and how the fight against domestic violence has been mainstreamed by the Chinese feminist movement since 1995.
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