Shanghai (AFP) – The suicide of a teenager in China whose sexual harassment case was dismissed has triggered a bout of national soul-searching over her treatment and anger at onlookers who encouraged her to jump off a building.
Li Yiyi, 19, died last week after throwing herself from the eighth floor of a department store in Qingyang, a city in northwest Gansu province, following previous suicide attempts, police told reporters.
A public outcry erupted after videos of the scene circulated online and reports that some bystanders had jeered her and urged the young woman to “jump quickly” while firefighters tried to save her.
The police said Monday they had detained two people who had booed, and started investigations into six others for verbally abusive online posts about Ms Li.
“The world is getting more and more indifferent. I’m scared. Just how mentally defected are those people who booed her to jump?” questioned one user on Twitter-like Weibo.
The case has put a new spotlight on the struggle among Chinese women to get legal help in sexual abuse allegations.
The teenager had been upset because prosecutors cleared a high school teacher whom she had accused of forcibly kissing her and trying take her clothes off in September 2016.
Ms Li and her father had repeatedly sought charges against him but local prosecutors decided not to try him, declaring that his behaviour was a “slight” offence that did not constitute a crime. She appealed to a higher prosecutor, who also rejected her case.
The teacher was briefly detained but kept his job.
“She fought for two years. Except for her father, no one including teachers, the school, the court and the prosecutor cared about her pain. Only those firefighters kept trying to save her,” a Weibo user wrote.
Sexual harassment cases have rocked Chinese university campuses in recent months, fuelling a #MeToo movement that has been more low-key than in other countries due to censorship by the authorities.
There is no legal definition of sexual harassment in China and no national regulations on how to handle sexual assault cases in schools and workplaces.
Guo Jianmei, a women’s rights lawyer in Beijing, said very few sexual assault cases are prosecuted due to lack of evidence and a lack of respect for women has contributed to such cases not being taken seriously in China.
“Her case is a typical pattern where her helplessness and loneliness after long-term pressure sent her toward a death path,” Ms Guo told AFP.
“It happens a lot. And it is hidden harassment, which is hard to get convicted as there is no obvious violence in the action,” she said.
“She was actually very brave as she went to the police and talked about it. Most girls just cry in private and then become depressed. They wouldn’t even dare to tell their parents.”
A 26-year-old Chinese graduate student drew social media praise last month after she tried to sue police for dismissing her rape report – it was believed to be the first such attempt to challenge the authorities on a sexual assault allegation.
The burden of proof is high for alleged victims, according to lawyers.
In a 2017 survey of more than 6,500 Chinese students, conducted by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Centre, 70 percent reported having been sexually harassed and over 40 percent said the cases took place in public areas on campus.
But only four percent of women and even fewer men reported campus sexual abuse cases to police, according to a 2015 Sina.com survey.
Ms Li had attempted to kill herself four other times before taking her own life, police said Monday.
Police said the teacher was detained for 10 days on a minor offence.
The officers said they were investigating if the suicide was linked to the sexual harassment case.
“The thing my daughter could not let go was the person was only lightly punished. The school didn’t admit even they did wrong… They think she made too big of a deal out of a small matter,” Ms Li’s father told The Beijing News.
In a complaint to prosecutors, Li said the school had “deceived” her and had not punished the teacher because he was “hard to replace”.
The captain of the rescue team at the local fire department, Xu Jiwei, who had intervened in Ms Li’s previous suicide attempts, told reporters the young woman had begged him to let her die.
Mr Xu said in a rare emotional account that the whole firefighting squad cried after Ms Li fell and they were “deeply sorry” for her death.