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Chinese woman denies divorce despite video showing she jumped out of window to escape domestic abuse

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By: New York Times |

Updated: September 17, 2020 10:18:08 am


An image from surveillance footage shows Liu Zengyan on the street after jumping out of a window to escape an attack by her husband at the time, shown standing on the sidewalk, in Shangqiu, China, in August 2019. (via The New York Times)

Written by Sui-Lee Wee

The man and woman were alone in her boutique, but security cameras caught them all: he was pushing her down, punching her, slapping her and pulling her by the hair across the floor.

In last year’s footage that recently circulated online, he can be seen dragging her to another room. Minutes later, the woman falling her hair falls from the second floor on the street down to the central Chinese city of Shangqiu. The woman, Liu Zengyan, later said it was the only way she could escape.

As she was hospitalized after the attack, with fractures in her waist, chest and eye sockets and temporarily paralyzed lower limbs, Liu said, she was determined to leave her husband for good.

But one court said no.

The Lius case has sparked a nationwide debate over two of the biggest issues facing women in China: the spread of domestic violence and the difficulties of finding justice in a legal system piled up against them.

A survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation in 2011 showed that about 1 in 4 women had suffered physical or verbal abuse or had their freedoms restricted by their partners. But activists, citing interviews with abused women, estimate the figures are much higher, especially as millions were put under blockade during the pandemic.

A photo provided by Liu Zengyan shows her in hospital in August 2019, a day after she was attacked by her husband at the time. She says she had to jump out of a second floor window to escape. (Liu Zengyan via The New York Times)

Although China introduced a law against domestic violence in 2016, the penalties are minimal. Spousal rape is still legal, and women say detention orders are rarely enforced.

Divorce is also becoming more difficult, with the government imposing a 30-day cooling off period on couples seeking separation starting next year. Lawmakers alarmed by China’s rising divorce rate argue new law will prevent couples from splitting up quickly, but women’s rights advocates say it will keep people trapped in abusive marriages for longer .

The troubles for Liu, 24, began about a year after her marriage in 2017 to high school girlfriend Dou Jiahao, 23, in Shangqiu, a city of more than 7 million. During their acquaintance he treated her very well, Liu said in an interview. Then in April 2018, Dou lost more than $ 7,200 in gambling and beat him when he returned home, according to Liu.

The first time, I did not call the police because I did not classify the behavior as domestic violence, she said. At that time, the phrase domestic violence was not ingrained in people’s minds.

She left Dou for more than a month, but, according to Liu, he apologized and begged her to take him back. Liu said she decided to stay with him because their son, who is now almost 3 years old, was still a child.

In July 2019, Liu said, she complained to her mother-in-law that Dou had been out all night playing cards. The elderly woman lectured her son, who flew furiously and slapped and punched Liu, she said.

Although she did not feel there was enough evidence to go to the police, Liu decided it was time to end her marriage.

But before she could do it, according to Liu, the third beating happened.

In August 2019, Dou was furious after his mother scolded him in front of his friends while he was gambling. Liu said his mother, worried about how angry he was, sent her a message: Close the door and get out quickly.

Liu went to stay with her mother that night. But six days later, Liu returned to her boutique, thinking her husband was out of town. Instead he entered the store, pushed Liu to the ground, slapped him, snatched his cell phone and said he was going to kill her, she recalls.

An image from surveillance footage shows Liu Zengyan being attacked by her then-husband in Shangqiu, China, in August 2019. (via The New York Times)

The only way to stop the beating, Liu said, was to jump out the window, sitting firmly on her bare feet. Video footage from security cameras showed Dou coming out and looking quizzically at the window upstairs as shocked passersby tried to help Liu.

You can see he almost becomes a psychopath, said Liu, who is using a wheelchair while recovering. He was beating me to fulfill a desire for violence.

Dou, who is now in police custody, could not be reached for comment. Liu said his parents had changed their cell phone numbers and that there was no way she could reach them. Her lawyer said he had no contact details for attorney Dous.

Only in recent years has domestic violence been seen as a major problem in China, where laws are mostly made and enforced by men, and families are discouraged from transmitting their problems to the public. Several high-profile cases have drawn attention to the issue, and a city in eastern China recently began allowing people to check if their partners have a history of abuse before marrying them.

But victims often face resistance in the legal system, which may discourage them from seeking help. Although marriage law in Chinas specifies that domestic violence is a sufficient basis for divorce, many courts encourage couples to try to reconcile in the name of social and family harmony.

After the third beating, Lius’s father-in-law tried to persuade him to stay in the marriage with promises of a car and an apartment, she said. She refused, and they have stopped paying her medical expenses.

Liu also found little sympathy when she reported her husband to the police. Officials blamed the fall for her injuries, she said, and a forensic board found that Dou was solely responsible for breaking his left eye socket, describing it as a minor injury, according to a copy of the first report by The New York Times. Numerous calls to the police for comments went unanswered.

A second assessment in November 2019 concluded that Dou had caused Liu a minor first-degree injury, elevating him to a criminal case. He was detained in March and charged with causing grievous bodily harm.

In June, Liu filed for divorce in the Zhecheng District Court in Henan province, showing the video of the boutique beating as evidence. The court rejected her claim, saying Dou had not agreed to the divorce and that they should seek mediation. Liu was also told she could not divorce while the criminal case against her husband was still pending.

It never occurred to me that the courts could not directly grant me a divorce in the first hearing, Liu said.

In an attempt to put pressure on the court, Liu uploaded video of her beating on WeChat, the dominant social media platform in Chinas. Thousands of Chinese internet users rallied in her defense and a hashtag related to her issue was viewed more than 1 billion times on the Weibo microblogging site. News media interviews soon followed.

Before long, a judge summoned Liu to say there was no need for mediation and the court would issue a decision soon. On July 28, three weeks after she released the video, she was granted a divorce.

I’m very happy, said Liu, who is preparing to reopen her boutique after renovating it. I finally got what I wanted.

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