Traditional Gender Roles And Intimate Partner Violence Linked in China

--D. Hollander, Guttmacher Institute

First published online:

Chinese women whose beliefs and experiences reflect traditional norms that limit gender equality may be at increased risk of being subjected to intimate partner violence.1 Forty-three percent of women surveyed at a gynecology clinic said they had ever been physically or sexually abused by a partner; 26% reported that such abuse had occurred during the previous year. Several factors that suggest adherence to traditional gender roles were associated with a woman's likelihood of reporting intimate partner violence. For example, women who had ever turned down a job because of their partner had elevated odds of reporting abuse ever or in the past year, as did women who thought that wife-beating is sometimes justified. Those who believed that a wife has a duty to have intercourse with her husband also had elevated odds of saying that they had ever been abused.

The survey was conducted in 2000 among a randomly selected sample of 18-60-year-old women attending a clinic in a major teaching hospital. In face-to-face interviews, women were asked whether a current or former intimate partner had ever subjected them to a variety of forms of physical abuse (e.g., had slapped, kicked, beaten or threatened them), sexual abuse (e.g., had forced them to have intercourse) or psychological abuse (e.g., had insulted or humiliated them). Those who reported any physical or sexual abuse were categorized as having experienced intimate partner violence. The interviews also elicited information on demographic, behavioral, socioeconomic and cultural factors that may be related to intimate partner violence; possible relationships were assessed through univariate and multivariate logistic regression.

Most of the 600 women included in the analyses lived in urban areas (74%), were married (87%) and had lived with no more than one partner (92%); on average, the women were 31 years old and had had nine years of schooling. Two-thirds were employed (mainly as workers, the lowest status employment category), and three-fourths earned income. Smoking and drinking were reportedly much less common among the women themselves (3% and 13%, respectively) than among their partners (60% and 62%, respectively). Nearly half of women said that they sometimes or often quarreled with their partner; one in eight said that he was engaged in an extramarital affair.

Data on socioeconomic and cultural characteristics suggest varying levels of adherence to traditional patriarchal norms. The majority of women said that they were involved in financial decisions, but two in 10 had turned down a job because of their partner, one in 10 said he had taken money away from them and the same proportion said that he had refused them money. In comparison with their partner, almost half of women had a lower level of education and job status, and one-quarter had a lower income. About 25-40% of women agreed that a good wife obeys her husband, that it is important for a man to show his wife who is boss, that a woman is unable to choose her own friends and that a wife is obliged to have intercourse with her husband even if she does not feel like it. Seventy percent agreed that family problems should not be discussed with outsiders. Responses to scaled items reveal some support for the belief that wife-beating is justified in certain situations and for traditional attitudes toward the woman's role in sexual relations.

Thirty-eight percent of women had ever been physically abused by a partner, and 16% had ever been sexually abused; for the past year, the proportions were 21% and 12%, respectively. Of those who had ever experienced physical abuse, 29% also had been subjected to sexual abuse; of those who had been physically abused in the past year, 24% also had been sexually abused during that time. Overall, 43% of women had experienced intimate partner violence, and 26% had been abused by a partner in the past year.

In the univariate analyses, a large number of measures were significantly related to women's likelihood of reporting intimate partner violence; the results were similar for reports of lifetime and recent experiences. The multivariate analyses identified 11 factors that were independently associated with reports of abuse. Four of these were significantly associated with elevated odds of both lifetime and recent victimization: having a partner who was involved in an extramarital affair (odds ratios, 3.0 and 2.5, respectively), having more than occasional quarrels with a partner (2.8 and 3.2), having refused a job because of a partner (2.1 for each) and holding traditional beliefs about wife-beating (1.5 and 1.3). Two factors were associated with reduced odds of intimate partner violence ever and in the last year: having a partner who worked as a manager or supervisor (0.4 for each), and agreeing that family problems should be discussed only within the family (0.6 for each).

Additionally, the likelihood that women had ever been subjected to intimate partner violence was elevated among those who had lived with two or more partners (odds ratio, 3.1), whose partner had ever been drunk in the past year (2.2), whose partner had refused them money (5.3) and who believed that a wife is obliged to have intercourse with her husband (1.6). One factor was associated with intimate partner violence only in the past year: Compared with women who had grown up and currently lived in an urban or suburban area, those who had grown up in a rural area had higher odds of reporting any abuse (2.0-2.1, depending on their current residential setting).

According to the researchers, given that the majority of women believed that family problems should be kept within the family, the prevalence of intimate partner violence in their sample may underestimate the frequency with which such violence occurs. Furthermore, in the researchers' view, the findings suggest that despite China's social and economic reforms, and the attendant promise of equality for women, many women's lives are still influenced by "the norms of a male-dominated culture to some degree." In light of the associations they found between adherence to those norms and intimate partner violence, the researchers conclude that "one of the main problems for contemporary Chinese society" is realizing the promise of gender equality.

--D. Hollander


1. Xu X et al., Prevalence of and risk factors for intimate partner violence in China, American Journal of Public Health, 2005, 95(1):78-85.