Spare the rod

By Wang Hairong
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, August 7, 2012
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Summer is a wonderful season for many school children. But for Sun Zhengwen, a 13-year-old girl in Qingdao, east China's Shandong Province, it was a very dark time. On July 8, just days into the holidays she jumped off a building and killed herself, leaving behind a three-page suicide note accusing her parents of violence and abuse.

According to Sun's note, on the evening of July 6, her father found that she did not finish a question in her homework assignment. He slapped her on her left cheek, to which she screamed "I lost my hearing," prompting a harder slap to the right side of the face that sent her to the ground, reeling. She wrote that her parents continued to beat her until she lost consciousness, and she did not wake up until the next morning.

Sun recalled how she had been physically punished since childhood. For instance, she wrote, once she did not finish her homework in time, her mother forced her to kneel on the cement floor for a whole night.

Sun lived in a well-to-do family in a prosperous coastal city, and attended a local private school. To make it more convenient for Sun to attend school, the family moved to a nearby apartment about one year ago.

The girl's suicide has sparked concerns about child abuse and the legal means to protect children from domestic violence.

Prevalent violence

Child abuse involves physical or emotional injury, neglect, exploitation and sexual abuse.

Most violence against children is committed by parents or other close family members, according to the Beijing Children's Legal Aid and Research Center. A report published by the center in 2011 said that of the 338 cases studied, as many as 86.33 percent of the perpetrators were parents, and another approximately 10 percent were other family members.

A survey of 60 students in a public school in Beijing revealed that nearly three quarters of the respondents had been spanked at home, and two children said that they were often subjected to physical punishment, reported Beijing Times in June.

Beijing Times recently surveyed 200 students from grades three to six in a school for children of migrant rural workers in Beijing. Only one child reported having never been beaten at home, whereas 13 children said they had often been beaten by their parents, sometimes with a stick or whip.

A number of cases of violence against children have been reported by media outlets nationwide. For instance, on March 9, Li Yuanzhao in Huize County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, nearly beat his 6-year-old son to death and then buried him alive because the boy did not do his homework.

Harsh parents

In 2011, the year Sun entered junior middle school, two persons, "tiger mother" Amy Chua in the United States and "wolf father" Xiao Baiyou in China famously published books flaunting strict parenting techniques.

In her book The Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother, Chua shared a story about intimidating her 7-year-old daughter Lulu into playing a piano piece called The Little White Donkey. When her daughter wanted to give up, Chua threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no gifts or parties for several years and let her work right through dinner into the night, without water or bathroom breaks.

In Chua's wake, Xiao published a book in June 2011 about how he had brought up his three children who were all admitted into China's prestigious Peking University. Xiao unabashedly said that his secret weapon was a rattan rod. He thanked his ancestors for inventing this valuable education tool, with which he often disciplined his children.

Chinese parents' belief in the old adage "spare the rod, spoil the child" leads to 13 percent of violence against children, according to the report of the Beijing Children's Legal Aid and Research Center.

Many parents do not think beating children is violence. Some thought physical punishment is justifiable as long as the motive is good. They punish children for assorted reasons, such as insubordination, poor study habits and delinquent behavior.

In addition to problematic parenting philosophies, another leading cause of violence against children is strife and dysfunction within families.

"Parents often vent their anger on children," said Zhang Xuemei, Deputy Director of Beijing Children's Legal Aid and Research Center.

Unreported sins

Compared to children in stable families, children in single-parent families or families with a step parent, migrant children and latchkey kids are more likely to be victims of violence, according to the report. The center found that 53.34 percent of the violence cases it studied happened to such children.

Shen Xiaoran, a 5-year-old girl abused to death by her stepmother, was from such a family.

On May 6, Shen died in a hospital in Pingshun County, north China's Shanxi Province, from an infection of an intestinal injury. Her body was black and blue all over, arousing suspicion of child abuse. The case was reported to the local police. An autopsy showed that the intestinal injury was caused by blunt trauma.

A police investigation revealed that the girl's step-mother Li Yanqin had frequently abused her.

According to Sanjin Metropolitan News, a local paper in Shanxi, Shen's biological parents separated before she turned 1 year old and divorced later. Her father was granted custody. Since her father worked away from home in cities, the girl was taken care of by her grandmother in a small village. In 2010, her father began to cohabitate with Li, who has a boy from previous marriage. Since September 2011 when Shen was brought to live with Li, bruises and scars had often been seen on the girl's face and neck.

In April 2011, Li moved out of the village to the Pingshun County seat to do business, bringing the two children along. They lived in a rented apartment, and neighbors said that they often heard the child being beaten. Forty days after the family moved to the county seat, the girl died.

Shen's uncle said that Shen's father worked in nearby Changzhi City for most of the year and was not at home when the tragedy happened.

In this May, the Internet was boiling in anger over the cruelty of Shen's stepmother. The version of the story circulated on blogs is more detailed and bloodier.

After learning about Shen's story, many people could not help asking why those close to Shen had not reported the abuse to police earlier.

Seeing the child's scars from time to time, Shen's grandmother urged Li to be nicer to her, and even requested to take the child back, but Li refused. But Shen's grandmother said that she had never thought of seeking legal assistance.

Chinese laws such as the Law on the Protection of Minors ban violence against children. Yet the country's Criminal Law stipulates unless the victims of abuse die or are gravely injured, criminal abuse cases can only be handled upon complaint.

According to the Beijing Children's Legal Aid and Research Center, few cases were ever reported in 2011. Usually, young victims do not have the capacity or are reluctant to indict their parents.

Although family members, neighbors and neighborhood committees can file lawsuits on behalf of minors, they tend to think that disciplining children is the family's internal affair and are therefore hesitant to intervene. Most people mistakenly believe that only injuries requiring hospitalization constitute serious violence, so the warning signs of child abuse are often ignored until it is too late.

Legal remedies

"Even if domestic violence against children has been reported, the police can do little. Because of a lack of facilities to shelter such children, the police can only send them back home, where they may be subjected to further abuse," Zhang said.

Laws such as the General Principles of Civil Law and the Law on the Protection of Minors stipulate that the court can revoke custody from any parent or guardian for child abuse or neglect.

But courts seldom revoke custody, according to Tong Lihua, Director of the Minor Protection Law Committee of the All-China Lawyers Association.

"That is because of ambiguities about who is eligible to apply for the termination of custody over a child and who should raise the child after custody is revoked," Tong said.

Under the current Criminal Law, several crimes are related to domestic violence, such as homicide, mayhem, abuse, abandonment and rape.

Article 260 of the Criminal Law stipulates that whoever flagrantly abuses a family member shall be sentenced to criminal detention, public surveillance or a prison term of no more than two years. Family members causing serious injury or death to the victim through abuse shall be sentenced to a prison term of not less than two years but not more than seven years.

Legal experts, such as Jiang Yue'e, head of the Rights and Interests Department of the All-China Women's Federation, think the punishment is not severe enough. Given the inadequate legal paths to tackling domestic violence, they call for a special law to address the crime.

In March 2011, Zhen Yan, Vice Chairwoman of the All-China Women's Federation, submitted a draft of an anti-domestic violence law to the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature. According to the Legal Affairs Committee of the NPC, the proposed law has been put on the legislative agenda in 2012.

According to Jiang, there are some challenges in making such a law, such as the definition of domestic violence, acceptability of evidence, burden of proof and proper punishment.

Legal experts suggest making reporting of domestic violence against minors mandatory, including who are obligated to report such violence, when to report, which department is responsible for handling the report, and the accountabilities for failure to report. In addition, they said that intervening measures, relief services, protection of victims and punishment of perpetrators should be clearly and properly specified.

After Shen's death, the Pingshun County Government established a work group to detect hidden child abuse cases. Consisting of members specializing in law, education, women's affairs and children's affairs, the group screens students and preschool children, especially left-behind children of migrant workers and children in foster care or single-parent families for anomalies, and offers victims necessary help. Staff from relevant departments also traveled around the county to educate people about laws protecting minors.

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