Hong Kong: Same-Sex Couples Included in the Amended Domestic Violence Law

On December 16, 2009, the Hong Kong Legislative Council passed an amendment in the domestic violence law to include same-sex couples in its provisions.

Starting January 1, 2010 the ordinance known as "Domestic and Cohabitation Relationships Violence Ordinance" will allow victims of violence in same-sex cohabitation relationships to seek legal remedies and apply for court injunctions. This means that a complainant can ask for a restraining order to prevent the perpetrator or abusive partner from entering or remaining in their residence.

The domestic violence ordinance was first enacted in 1986 to protect people in heterosexual relationships, whether married or cohabiting, by providing an injunction protection as a civil remedy. In August 2008, the government submitted a proposal to extend the scope of the law to cover former spouses or cohabitants, same-sex couples as well as immediate and extended family members. However, in response to aggressive opposition by conservative Christian groups and lawmakers, the provision to include same-sex couples was removed.

On June 17, 2009, attempts were made to include same-sex couples in the scope of the Domestic Violence Ordinance (DVO). Again, there was fierce opposition from conservative Christian groups and lawmakers, which resulted in a year-long delay in the introduction of the Domestic Violence (Amendment) Bill 2009 into the Legislative Council. The opposition argued that if the amendment were passed, it might be interpreted as a sign that Hong Kong will recognize same-sex unions and promote same-sex relationships.

Presently, Hong Kong law does not confer any legal status to same-sex relationships and only recognizes heterosexual married couples and heterosexual cohabitants.

According to Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, secretary for Labor and Welfare Services, the proposed amendment will not affect nor persuade the Hong Kong government's to change its position to give legal recognition to same-sex marriage, civil partnership or any same-sex relationships.

According to the Labour and Welfare Service, the government was able to reach a consensus only when it was agreed to change the name of the current law from, "Domestic Violence Ordinance" to "Domestic and Cohabitation Relationships Violence Ordinance." This move was made to ensure that the current law will not be misinterpreted as granting any legal status to same-sex relationships.

By changing the name of the DVO, the government made it clear that it will protect victims of violence whether inside marriage or cohabiting. At the same time, it recognized a distinction that cohabitation is not equivalent to marriage.

According to Nigel Collett, Joint English Secretary of Tongzhi Community Joint Meeting (TCJM), Christian fundamentalists and Roman Catholics in Hong Kong initially opposed the inclusion of same-sex partners in the amendment, "but when faced with the unavoidable fact that they were thus advocating a continued lack of protection against violence, they were forced back to the position of trying to ensure that the bill set no precedent for recognition of same sex partnerships. This is why they wished the Chinese word for 'domestic' to be amended, and the Government yielded on this," Collett said.

Cheung Kin-chung points out, "The bill represents the Government's best endeavor in reaching a viable solution acceptable to all. We have struck a reasonable and pragmatic balance in addressing the concerns of the related groups."

Connie Chan, chairperson of the Women Coalition of HKSAR explains that she is happy and relieved that the amendment was included to safeguard same-sex couples but saw the passage of the amendment as another challenge to Women Coalition of HKSAR work, "After four years following the legislation reform campaign, this is time to change our action plan from lobbying to monitoring. We will become a pressure group, monitoring the frontline practice and how the welfare agency practice the bill; will they have sexual orientation angle when providing services to same sex couples? Will there be appropriate services for same sex domestic violence prevention, and can the agency do more public education on LGBT community? Another big project will be providing awareness-raising training or sensitivity training for the social welfare workers so they can respond appropriately when LGBT people seek assistance for domestic violence."

Women Coalition of Hong Kong SAR is part of a broader coalition called 4MyColors that campaigned for the amendment and protested against lawmakers who opposed relief from domestic violence to victims in same-sex relationships. Other groups in 4MyColors include Midnight Blue, Rainbow Hong Kong, Rainbow Action and Hong Kong Ten Per Cent Club.

Nigel Collett shared his observation of the LGBT community's reaction towards the passage of the amendment, "There is general satisfaction that the bill has passed. There was unhappiness in the LGBT community that the Government yielded to the demands of the Christian right wing to alter the Ordinance's name, but it was accepted that the bill's passage into law thus amended will protect members of the community as soon as possible. The practical improvement in peoples' lives was worth the compromise."

With the success of the LGBT groups in advocating for the inclusion of same-sex couples in the domestic violence ordinance the next move for LGBT activists is to lobby for the passage of an anti-discrimination legislation, "The next step, which we think will take a long time, is the passage of legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. We already have protection against discrimination on grounds of race, age, disability and gender. Now we need to add one more," Collett added.

"I don't think the anti-discrimination bill, which has been pending almost fifteen years, will easily pass within the coming five years," Chan warns. "But as one of the basic human rights, we have to start to fight for it again."

Links:

LGBT groups in Hong Kong - http://hklgff.hk/en/ltbg-community/
Women Coalition of Hong Kong SAR - http://www.wchk.org