Author Zhang Lijia and her female class mates were the victim of sexual abuse when she studied in Nanjing, she recalls in the New York Times. Scandals have put sexual abuse on the official agenda, but that might not be enough, she fears.
When I was 13, living in the outskirts of Nanjing, my math teacher molested all the girls in our class, including me. Under the pretense of checking my work, he would lean over me, his face so close that I could smell his garlic breath, and he’d move his hand up my shirt, touching my chest.
Apart from trying to avoid him, we didn’t take any action. We knew what he was doing was wrong, but it never occurred to us to report him. A teacher in a Chinese classroom holds tremendous authority over students, and we didn’t even know the term “sexual abuse.” Most of us made it through the trauma, except for his main target, a plump girl who dropped out of school before she turned 14…
China is infamous for having strong laws that go unenforced. And compared to Western countries, Chinese courts tend to give sex offenders, well-connected officials in particular, light sentences. Changing some laws is a first step. More concrete actions should follow.
Governmental social services are essentially nonexistent. Beijing should set up a child-protection network, including a national department for child protection. Social workers, legal workers and psychologists need to be brought into the system.
A change in attitude is essential. A new emphasis on sex education would help. The subject is mostly ignored by teachers, and children seldom hear “the facts of life” at home. Lack of sexual knowledge and the awareness of potential abuse make young girls, like the group in my elementary school class, prone to exploitation.
Toxic traditional beliefs are another hurdle. A long-held Chinese myth says that having sex with a virgin can boost a man’s virility. The modern version has it that deflowering a girl can enhance a man’s chance of promotion because the word “virgin,” chu, is contained in the term chuzhang, which means section chief.
Chinese society will have to continue to open up, enabling more victims and their families to come forward. Up to now, a large number of cases went unreported, and few victims took legal action because the battles were so hard to fight, the punishment to abusers so lenient, and compensation extremely low. Victims’ families are still often stigmatized.
Today’s China is a much better place than the country of my childhood, but we have a long way to go. I often wonder what became of my classmate, the victim of the child abuse. Would she fare any better today?
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