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Domestic violence in Hong Kong

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in reports of domestic violence in Hong Kong, and the government has been sharply criticised for failing to adequately address this growing problem.

According to the Social Welfare Department of Hong Kong, the number of newly reported battered spouse cases increased from 4,424 in 2006 to 6,404 in 2007, and rose further in 2008, with more than 80% of victims being females. Women who have recently migrated to Hong Kong from mainland China are over represented victims of domestic violence.

News headlines have highlighted the problem of domestic violence in recent times. For instance, a 45-year-old man murdered his 31-year-old immigrant wife and two young daughters, and then committed suicide. According to police report, the wife had tried to seek help at a police station eight hours before she was killed. The victim had also sought assistance from the social workers. The deaths of the young mother and her two young children could have been avoided if frontline officers treated the report much more seriously. Sadly, this case is just one of too many and domestic violence rates will continue to increase as more women seek economic security in Hong Kong.

As a result, the government has been widely criticised for not tackling the problem head on. After several tragedies, Mr. Donald Tsang (the Chief Executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) announced several new measures to assist victims of domestic violence abuse and to provide counselling to offenders.

Policies and programmes range from family counselling, a hotline service, temporary housing, legal aid, and child protection services. The appointment of a Women’s Commissioner, the Hon. Sophie Leung, has raised and enhanced public awareness of domestic violence and its impact on families and communities. Mrs Sophie Leung has used her high profile to encourage women to report cases of abuse to authorities.

In June 2009, a Legislative Council review was conducted to extend the scope of the Domestic Violence Ordinance to same sex cohabitants, providing them with additional civil remedies alongside the existing criminal legislative framework. The review recommended the title of the DVO be changed to Domestic and Cohabitation Relationship Violence Ordinance.

Public opinion has reflected society’s dissatisfaction with the Hong Kong government’s slow response to change and their desire to protect the victims. The NGOs have lobbied the government to amend the law which will make domestic violence a crime directly under the Domestic Violence Ordinance.

In New South Wales, domestic violence is defined as a criminal offence under the Crimes Act 1900. After researching the two different pieces of legislation, I found that the regulations in Hong Kong do not offer similar protection to victims as in New South Wales. For instance, the Domestic Violence Ordinance in Hong Kong does not criminalise domestic violence directly; abusers may only be liable for criminal charges under other ordinances such as Offences Against the Person Ordinance; and sentences typically consisted of injunctions or restraining orders, which legislators urge is not enough to charge serious offenders with a criminal offence.

Currently, the DVO allows victims to apply for a three months injunction against their offenders, which is extendable to six months depending on the seriousness and gravity of the situation. The problem is exacerbated as most immigrant wives do not have property ownership of the house they are residing in. Therefore, they do not report the violence as they are fearful to be forced out from home and live in the streets.

Policy makers from Hong Kong can learn from the New South Wales’ Staying Home Leaving Violence program which assists victims to stay in their homes, provides temporary support for those fleeing violence and more permanent arrangements (e.g. social housing). Although all these programs emphasise support for victims of domestic and family violence, most also provide support to other disadvantaged groups and families and are therefore classified as mainstream services.

In Australia, the child’s best interests is always the paramount consideration when family breakdown occurs as a result of domestic violence. However, in Hong Kong there are no existing laws to protect the best interests of the child. Hong Kong can learn from New South Wales by appointing its own Commissioner for Children and Young People. This independent Commissioner can directly report to the Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

The Hong Kong government should have a whole government strategic response through inter-agency coordination and consultation with the NGOs. Partnership and collaboration must be implemented between government departments and the NGOs. By having this strategy, the government can prevent and respond to violence against women through: raising awareness of, and understanding about, violence against women; developing and promoting effective prevention strategies; improving women’s access to services; improving interagency coordination; and improving the criminal justice response to violence.

By: Sarah Ng. Sarah is an intern at the Parliamentary office of Rev the Hon. Dr Gordon Moyes AC MLC. She is currently in her second year studying a Bachelor of Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University. We thank Sarah for her valued contribution during her internship.

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