Li Yan (Image: Private, via Amnesty International)
The physical abuse started just months after Li Yan married her husband in 2009, and it only grew from there.
Li's husband locked her outside on a balcony in winter, cut off part of her finger and slammed her head against the wall. He put out his cigarettes on her face and legs, leaving her with burn scars. She required hospitalization after a particularly brutal assault.
Li went to the police, her neighborhood committee and the women's federation near her home in Sichuan Province, China, but they refused to help her. Only once did an officer take photos of her injuries. Even then, police never investigated the abuse.
In the eyes of officers, Li's was just another case of domestic violence, which is regularly treated as a private matter by Chinese authorities. Li's brother told the New York Times: "She telephoned the police in, I think, May 2010, after a beating, but they said it was an affair between married people and hung up."
Li's husband, given complete license to treat her as he wished, continued violently abusing her.
In November 2010, Li killed her husband during an argument by hitting him over the head with an air gun. Her trial judges, apparently unswayed by the extreme abuse she suffered, sentenced her to death for his murder.
She could be executed any day from now until February 9th, according to her lawyer, Guo Jianmei. "We give mercy to many extreme crimes," said Guo. "Why can't we give mercy to a woman who committed her crime in fear and after torment?"
Why, indeed? And why is it that China has no national laws against domestic violence? Why, too, does the Chinese government often give the maximum possible sentences to women convicted of hurting or killing abusive husbands? From the New York Times:
In a study by Xing Hongmei of China Women's University, of 121 female inmates in a Sichuan jail who were serving time for attacking or killing abusive partners, 71 were originally sentenced to life in prison or to death (sometimes commuted, delayed or overturned on appeal), and 28 more were sentenced to at least 10 years. This means more than 80 percent received the heaviest possible sentences for murder or bodily harm, the study said.
The Chinese system ignores women like Ms. Li when they plead for help, then imprisons or kills them if they act violently in desperation.
It may already be too late for Ms. Li, who will die unless the Supreme Court in Beijing overturns her sentence. But her story of abuse is all too common in China: at least a quarter of Chinese households witness domestic abuse, according to a recent study. Will the government ignore their pleas for help, too?
For millions of women in China, the abuse doesn't just begin with a violent spouse. It can begin as soon as an unborn baby is discernably female or as soon as a daughter is born. Since the Chinese government began the One-Child Policy in 1980, over 37 million girls have disappeared -- eliminated by families who prefer sons. For every six boys born, only five girls survive.
The Chinese government's indifference towards victims of domestic violence comes from the same root problem as the nation's ongoing gendercide of girls: In China, women are seen as lacking in value.
Many women and girls are devalued by the very people who should treasure them the most: their own families. This week, my organization received word that a young mother ran away from home after her husband attacked her for giving birth a third daughter rather a son. We wish these stories were rare, but they happen all the time.
"Though I cry, 'Violence!' I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice." (Job 19:7)
We pray that the women of China will soon be free to pursue justice against abusers without fear. We pray, too, that mothers and daughters will be freed from the injustice of the One-Child Policy. Only a government that cares little for the rights of women could criminalize motherhood and effectively sanction wife-abuse at the same time.
Despite the severity of this violence, we can have deep confidence it will not stand. For we have the hope that Jesus has conquered the violence on the cross, and we declare that Jesus' promise in the Sermon in the Mount will become a reality in China for all women and girls:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:3-5)
Last year when Feng Jianmei's forced abortion was exposed around the world, we saw the Chinese government order its family planning officials to stop doing late-term forced abortions. It's a small step compared to ending the One-Child Policy, but if officials abide by this, millions of mothers and babies could be spared. At least one woman's baby has already been saved by a global outcry: Cao Ruyi, who was under threat of forced abortion in June, safely delivered a son in October.
It is time for us to speak out again on behalf of Li Yan as we did for Feng Jianmei.
The day will come when no woman in China has reason to fear a forced abortion, illegal detention, or the silence of officials when they report domestic violence. In March, China's new leadership will hopefully make a series of sweeping policy changes; President Xi Jinping has a critical opportunity to lift up China's women by ending the One-Child Policy and enacting strong domestic violence laws. May he look to Jesus, who shifted the culture of his followers in a radical way by showing honor to women.
And in the meantime, may China show mercy to Li Yan: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." (Matthew 5:7)