China has drafted its first national law against domestic violence, a move hailed by activists as a step forward in a country where abuse has long been sidelined as a private matter.
The new law, published Tuesday, formally defines domestic violence for the first time and also streamlines the process for obtaining restraining orders -- measures that anti-domestic abuse groups have advocated for years.
"Over the years, we've many times felt powerless ourselves to help victims," said Hou Zhiming, a veteran women's rights advocate who heads the Maple Women's Psychological Counselling Centre in Beijing.
"If this law is actually enacted -- because the issuing of a draft means it will now enter the law-making process -- we will be very pleased," said Hou, whose centre is one of China's longest-running anti-domestic violence organisations.
"At the very least, there's finally movement on this law," she said.
But advocates also say the draft law, released by the Legislative Affairs Office of China's State Council, excludes unmarried and divorced couples and falls short in some others areas.
Less than two decades ago, physical abuse was not even acceptable as grounds for divorce in China. In 2001 the marriage law was amended to explicitly ban domestic violence for the first time.
But without a legal definition of the term, many victims -- if they report abuse at all -- have been shuffled from police to women's federation to neighbourhood committee, with authorities reluctant to intervene unless serious injury is involved.
Currently little protection is available if a partner threatens violence against a victim who tries to leave, advocates note, as restraining orders are rarely issued in China and shelters are nearly non-existent.
Courts must rule on restraining order requests within 48 hours, according to the draft law -- but if one is granted, the victim must start a lawsuit within 30 days or it will lapse.
The draft law stipulates that police must respond to reports of domestic violence and that schools, hospitals and other institutions may face "serious consequences" for failing to report cases to the authorities.
Nearly 40 percent of Chinese women who are married or in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported Wednesday, citing new figures from the All China Women's Federation.
The group, which is linked to the ruling Communist Party, has previously reported that abuse takes place in 24.7 percent of Chinese families.