• Campaigns

‘Don’t wash your dirty linen in public’

By Li Dehuai
A protester outside the high court in Nanning, Guangxi province, China, 3 February 2013. She joins a growing chorus of anger, both within China and across the world, over the impending execution of domestic violence victim Li Yan. © Women’s Voice

Li Dehuai’s sister could be executed any day now. She was convicted of killing her violent husband. Li Dehuai talks about his sister and how her story reflects the painful challenges faced by domestic violence victims in China.

Li Yan’s husband frequently beat her, locked her outside on the balcony in the freezing winter with little clothing, and tortured her by burning cigarettes into her face, even cutting off one of her fingers. She repeatedly pleaded with police for protection. Finally, in November 2010, to stop him from beating her she repeatedly hit him over the head with a gun.

Our mother was a teacher and our father was a factory worker. We grew up in a small village and my family was neither well off nor poor. My sister was a smart and very practical person who yearned for a stable family life. When she turned 16, she started work in a factory too and used to come back home during holidays.

Even as children we experienced domestic violence. My dad was very strict with us and he was violent towards mum. I remember once he hit mum. It wasn’t a hard hit, but I can still vividly remember how loud and angry he was.

My sister’s first marriage of 14 or 15 years ended in a divorce after her first husband, who was younger than her, got laid off in the 1990s. He became a depressed, angry and an uncaring drunkard. Her second husband was five years older. He worked in the same factory as my sister. He pursued her so much that she said yes to him in spite of his violent reputation at work. She thought that an older man would be more caring, unlike her first husband. The whole family was against her marriage to him because of his violent reputation and three previous divorces. My father threatened to disown her.

I left the village and moved to another city to work. Despite being in different towns we chatted on the phone a few times a month. After her marriage, the phone calls slowly dwindled to zero.

She was quiet during her occasional visits home. I think she was upset with herself for not taking our advice. Once I asked her about the cigarette burn marks on her face. She said they were from oil spatters when she was cooking. I asked her why the marks were only on her face and not her arm, but she seemed to have something she didn’t want to disclose. I knew that she was not happy, but I didn’t know it was that bad. In the two months preceding that fateful night, her visits home were very hurried. Visits to friends and family became few and far between. A lot of emotions must have been pent up during this time.

Her husband beat her badly on 2 August 2010. She went to the local resident’s committee (Juweihui) for help. They advised her to go to the hospital and the court. She went to the large county hospital where the doctor’s recorded extensive external injuries to her chest and her left leg. Nothing came of it. On 10 August, she was beaten again. She went to the police and photos of her injuries were taken. But the Police thought it was just another domestic argument, a ‘private matter’.

Male superiority is still prevalent in Chinese society. When family violence is committed against the weaker side, usually a woman, the victim thinks of forbearance and forgiving, in terms of the proverb ‘a peaceful family will also be a prosperous one’ ,or ‘Do not wash your dirty linen in public’. The local Residents’ Committee, Woman’s Association or police can usually do little to help, as shown by my sister’s experience. The approach is usually an oral reprimand and the focus is on conciliation, if the physical abuse has not caused serious injuries and disabilities.

For my sister, most people do not want to give evidence to support her case for fear of antagonizing her husband’s family. For those good friends and neighbours who did come forward, after being cautioned by detectives on perjury charges, their evidence was not accepted by the court.

I am very grateful for the effort of people across the world in pleading for leniency and the fight for justice on behalf of my sister. Thank you.