Women in Taiwan suffer alarmingly high rates of domestic violence. Overworked frontline women’s rescue workers say the traditional patriarchal family system is still a key factor in the prevalence of abuse against women.

In 2016, 117,550 domestic violence cases were reported to officials in Taiwan. That is 322 each day, or one every five minutes.

“We see many cases where the husband, who is under pressure at work, will go home and just beat his wife,” says Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation’s Tseng Ching-yi (曾瀞儀). “This can’t be an excuse. You can’t beat your wife because you are stressed.”

The statistics – provided by the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Department of Protective Services – show that the annual number of reported cases of domestic violence in Taiwan has been higher than 100,000 for the past five years.

However, Tseng, director of the foundation’s domestic violence and child witness department, estimates the true number could be more than double what is shown by official statistics.

“I have so many cases when the woman is coming to my office for the first time, but she has been abused for more than 10 years,” she says.


Behind closed doors

The definition of domestic violence is not restricted to physical violence – other common forms include emotional abuse, intimidation, coercion, threats and isolation. In Taiwan, more than half of the reported domestic violence cases take place in relationships where people are married, divorced, or unmarried couples living together, and a further 14 percent of the cases involve children.

Tseng, in an interview at the foundation’s office in Taipei’s Datong district, told The News Lens that while work-related stress may trigger abuse, the patriarchal family system and an unwillingness among people to intervene outside of their own homes remain key factors.

“There is an unequal balance between men and women in Taiwan society,” she says. “Men have power and control in our society. Men believe that they can do anything.”

Tseng gives the example of one woman, Mrs. Chen, who came to the foundation in recent years. Mrs. Chen went to her in-laws' house for Lunar New Year. At dinner, after she ate the last portion of vegetables in a dish, her husband hit her.

“She was hit by her husband because he thought that by her doing so [eating the last portion], he had ‘lost face’ – because it implied her husband didn’t make enough money to feed his family.”

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that people are typically unwilling to get involved in others’ affairs, even within their own family, Tseng says.

“In the past people thought [what happens in other people’s homes] is not their business,” she says. “Even a woman’s parents will say, ‘You are married now; it is your business. It isn’t our business.’”

Illustrating the reluctance among people to get involved, Tseng points to another case that she came across in early June. Mrs. Li, a recent migrant from Vietnam who sells vegetables at a local market in Ximen in Taipei, is hit almost every day by her husband who accuses her of engaging in prostitution.

“Her husband goes out and boasts that he hit his wife and that she is now seriously hurt,” Tseng says.

Tseng says that in her experience domestic violence in Taiwan is not restricted to a certain demographic.

“Doctors, teachers, policemen, they all do it.”

Moreover, women across society find it difficult to leave abusive relationships, Tseng says.

“In traditional Chinese culture, women also have the stereotype that for her children’s best interest, she has to stay with her husband until their children have grown up.”

She adds that many women had “very negative experiences when seeking help,” including being turned away by police or facing more abuse at home.

“Some women are afraid that if they seek help, maybe their husbands will hit them more.”


Signs of progress?

The introduction of Taiwan’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act a decade ago coupled with a ramp-up in the number of community engagement programs run by government and NGOs – showing people how to deal with their emotions without resorting to violence – has driven a steady increase in reporting of domestic violence. But this does not necessarily reflect a change in the overall number of domestic violence cases.

“I wouldn’t say it in that way [that the situation is getting better],” Tseng says.

While frontline workers do not believe there has been an overall reduction in abuse, they believe that women across Taiwan are more aware of the issue than ten years ago.

Before the act was passed, Tseng says, women believed that they simply had to “bear” their husbands.

“They could not do anything to stop their husbands,” she says. “Women now know this was wrong. Your husband can’t abuse you at home.”

Further, Tseng says the government does take domestic violence “very seriously” and police are also “aware” of the issue and, by law, must file any complaints within 24 hours of receiving them.

Advancing cases to prosecution, however, is more difficult as it depends on the victim's willingness to pursue the case through the court system, Tseng says.

Still, about 26,000 protection orders were issued in 2016. That is more than 70 a day.

Meanwhile, the lift in reporting domestic violence is putting a strain on social workers.

Tseng points to the team of social workers in two of Taipei’s 12 districts, Shilin and Beitou, which combined are home to about half a million people; seven staff deal with about 100 new reported cases each month, plus about 150 unresolved cases.

“We don’t have enough social workers,” she says bluntly.


Taiwan is not alone

Australia, with 23.8 million people, has a similar size population to Taiwan. According to figures provided by police to ABC in 2015, Australian police responded to almost 240,000 domestic violence cases annually, about double the figure for Taiwan in 2016.

In March 2016, a high-level report into family violence was published by the government of Victoria following a 13-month investigation.

The report noted that support services, police and courts were overwhelmed by the number of family violence incidents and that stopping family violence needed to be seen as a core responsibility of the government. Still, demonstrating the scale and complexity of the problem, the report made more than 200 recommendations.

According to the World Health Organization, worldwide almost one-third of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.

The names of abuse victims have been changed.

Editor: Olivia Yang