“We strip you naked to crush your spirit!” –Gender-based State Violence & Reprisals against Women Human Rights Defenders in China

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“We strip you naked to crush your spirit!” –Gender-based State Violence & Reprisals against Women Human Rights Defenders in China

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders— July 31, 2023) Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has claimed to champion women’s equality. Chairman Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky,” and the first PRC Constitution––adopted in 1954–– provided that “Women in the People’s Republic of China shall enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life: political, economic, cultural, social and familial” (Art. 48).  While women in China have made significant strides toward the goal of achieving equal rights with men, since Xi Jinping’s ascendancy as China’s top leader in 2012, they have faced increasing risks when engaging in any activity, including speech, aimed at promoting and defending women’s rights, as well as other human rights.   

This report focuses on gender-based violence perpetrated against women human rights defenders (WHRDs) by the Chinese government and its agents. Gender-based violence against WHRDs has become increasingly acute as WHRDs, including feminist activists, gained visibility and influence through their activism, organizing, and strategic use of social media. The context for this report was the review in May 2023 of China by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This report expands upon our shorter submission to the Committee for the review.

Women human rights defenders are, of course, not the only group of women facing gender-based state violence in China. For background and context, we begin with a brief overview of CEDAW’s definition of “gender-based violence” and other targets of such violence highlighted by the Committee during its most recent review of China’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Convention).

In Chapter One, we focus on a common but rarely publicized form of gender-based state violence against women human rights defenders: forced strip searches, without warrant or cause, by police officers and other state agents in police stations and detention facilities. Through interviews CHRD conducted with WHRDs in China for this report, a clear picture emerged of a routine state practice of the use of strip searches to humiliate and subjugate women human rights defenders and lawyers, and other women in state custody. The interviewees also recounted instances of verbal abuse and torture. Attempts to hold perpetrators of state gender-based violence accountable have been unsuccessful and the victims’ access to justice has proved elusive.

Chapter Two documents acts of retaliation and reprisals against WHRDs. When WHRDs speak out for victims, seek an end to official impunity, and advocate for gender equality, many have themselves faced sexual harassment and state violence, including police brutality, arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearance. CEDAW and other UN human rights mechanisms have repeatedly raised the issue of state reprisals against human rights defenders with the Chinese government, to little effect.

In Chapter Three, CHRD concludes with recommendations to the Chinese government and other stakeholders on measures they should take to ensure the government fulfills its obligations under the Convention and eliminate gender-based and other state violence against women.  

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William Nee, Research and Advocacy Coordinator, CHRD, +1-623-295-9604, William [at] nchrd.org, @williamnee

Renee Xia, Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012, reneexia [at] nchrd.org, @reneexiachrd

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