On the occasion of International Women’s Day, it is disheartening to see the recent news stories on violence against women and the poor treatment of survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

Hong Kong can and should do better to protect vulnerable women from violence. Lessons from a vulnerable community in Hong Kong – South Asian women – can help inform the city’s policies on domestic violence.

Hong Kong currently has the Domestic and Cohabitation Relationships Violence Ordinance. Originally passed in 1986, the law was strengthened following a case in Tin Shui Wai in 2004.

A woman tried to get help from the police to leave her husband, but the police refused to intervene. The woman returned to gather her things at her home, where her husband killed her and her two young daughters before committing suicide.

File photo: Tam Wai.

This put the spotlight on domestic violence in Hong Kong and the policy was subsequently changed. The changes included coverage of more relationship types, an extension of the period in which an ouster and entry order could be implemented, and an option for the judge to mandate the abuser to attend an anti-violence programme in order to address attitudes and behaviours.

Despite these changes, the policy is still woefully underutilised. The experience of South Asian women may highlight why this is the case.

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There are several barriers that South Asian women face when trying to get help in abuse situations. The language barrier is a major issue. Some women may be immigrants or may not have had a lot of education in English or Cantonese. This makes it difficult for them to find out about resources and to access services that might help them.

Because of language, South Asian women may not be able to integrate well into Hong Kong society and face social isolation. They may also be far away from familiar surroundings and their usual sources of community support. They may also be socially isolated due to the husband’s or family’s control.

Immigration status may also be a factor. Some women may be on dependent visas that need their husband’s sponsorship. Some women may have even come to Hong Kong by illegal means, like fake marriages.

File photo: UN.

Many South Asian women are housewives and are dependent on their husband as the breadwinner. They lack financial independence and worry about who would make money to feed the family if the husband went to prison for domestic violence.

Discrimination in wider society also plays a part. Most services are set up primarily to serve Chinese-speaking clients, and they may be insensitive to the food and cultural needs of ethnic minorities. South Asian women also have to deal with the Hong Kong police, who might dismiss a case of domestic violence as simply a domestic incident.

Moreover, in cases in which women are being abused, there is pressure from family and friends to stay with the abusive husband. The women themselves may decide to stay in a relationship to maintain social face, because of the stigma associated with divorce and for the sake of their children’s futures.

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In 2014, there were over 13,000 domestic conflicts handled by the police, of which only 1,669 cases were categorised as domestic violence. Meanwhile, the Social Welfare Department handled almost 4,000 cases.

But in 2013, only 42 people applied for assistance under the Domestic and Cohabitation Relationships Violence Ordinance. And between 2008 and 2016, only six abusers were ordered to go to an anti-violence programme. These figures tell us that the law clearly fails to protect victims or prevent future violence because so few people use it.

Not only is the utilisation rate low, but the tools offered are also weak. This is designed as a one-size fits all remedy. It doesn’t take into account the different situations that might lead to domestic violence and the differences between vulnerable populations. The needs of the victims may be very different, and so the solutions would need to be different as well.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

There is also no clear definition of important terms in the law, such as “molestation” or “violence”. Hong Kong’s judicial system is based on the UK’s system of case law, which means that previous court cases are used to decide future cases. However, for laypeople, this leaves a lot of uncertainty as they may not be familiar with previous cases and how these terms are defined.

Although the law was updated to include more relationship types, there is no coverage for other vulnerable groups, such as domestic helpers. They technically cohabit with their employers and can be subject to a lot of abuse during their work.

Similarly, no coverage is provided for roommates or friends who live together, even though it is possible that violence can arise in these situations as well.

Next, there are no clear consequences for abusers who don’t follow court orders. Cases brought under this law are civil cases, so unlike criminal cases, if abusers do not follow the orders, they will not necessarily go to jail.

According to the information that I could find, although an authorisation of arrest can be attached to an ouster and entry order, which would allow police to arrest the perpetrator if he entered the victim’s home or if he refused to allow the victim to live there, this is not a requirement for all orders.

Hence, there is no enforcement mechanism to make sure orders are followed.

While trying to find clear and concise information about the law, it was difficult to find it in one place in an accessible manner. If a layperson were trying to find this information in an easy to understand format, they would give up before even trying to apply.

In order for this law to work, we need clear, concise, and easily accessible information about the Domestic and Cohabitation Relationships Violence Ordinance. We also need to disseminate information about it, especially to vulnerable groups, such as South Asian women.

Because people in the South Asian community typically marry another member of their community and they often bring their spouse from their native country, when these spouses newly enter Hong Kong, they are often not knowledgeable about Hong Kong norms or policies.

Domestic abuse may be the norm in their home countries. Some people may even come over as part of a fake marriage, making women in these types of marriages even more vulnerable. So when men and women immigrate to Hong Kong, they should be given a class on domestic violence and relevant laws.

This could help educate newcomers, empower them with options in case of domestic abuse, and save the government money by preventing domestic abuse cases.

It is also important to adapt policies to fit vulnerable communities. For instance, research showed a strong family orientation in South Asian families. So when the law is applied, we can also provide options that strengthen families for those who decide to maintain their family.

File Photo: Pexels.

This can be done by supporting them with mandated comprehensive programmes, such as anti-violence programmes, case management, social work follow-up, alcohol and substance abuse programmes, family counselling, and educational programmes for all household members.

Automatically attaching an authorisation of arrest to all orders could also help rebalance power within the relationships and help ensure that the orders are followed.

In the end, Hong Kong needs to implement a policy that can be flexible enough to account for the barriers in different vulnerable communities and understand their unique situation. If these issues are not addressed, domestic violence will become a larger problem for Hong Kong society to deal with, leading to larger societal costs.

Perhaps International Women’s Day is the perfect time to start a dialogue between Hong Kong Chinese and ethnic minority communities about domestic violence and how to strengthen the Domestic and Cohabitation Relationships Violence Ordinance.

KC Sunil

Sunil KC is a freelance researcher and writer based in Hong Kong. He writes on topical issues that affect Hong Kongers, especially the city's most vulnerable communities. His topics of interest involve the ethnic minority community, poverty, labour, health, migration, and the environment.