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2021-10-07

Crime-fighting scholar out to curb violence — Dr. Pei-ling Wang (王珮玲)

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In 1997, Taiwan became the first Asian country to codify domestic and sexual violence into criminal law, passing the Sexual Assault Crime Prevention Act that year and the Domestic Violence Prevention Act a short while later. Today, Taiwan remains at the forefront of Asia’s battle for greater public awareness, broader legal protection, and more comprehensive support for victims of abuse.

Professor Pei-ling Wang (王珮玲), who leads National Chi Nan University’s (NCNU) Department of Social Policy and Social Work, has worked her way through all the possible steps of sexual violence prevention, and is still looking for new angles and solutions. There are just over 20 universities with social welfare programs in Taiwan, and even fewer are staffed with scholars like Wang who have practical, hands-on experience when it comes to assault prevention and legal advocacy.

Raised in a lively family with four other siblings, Wang joined the Central Police University on a national scholarship after graduating from Taichung Girls' Senior High School per her police father’s suggestion. Following her graduate degree from the College of Police Science and Technology, Wang flew to New Jersey for doctoral studies at Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice around the time when 7-year-old Megan Kanka was murdered.

The rape and slaughter was carried out in 1994 by a neighbor who was previously imprisoned for aggravated sexual assault. Subsequently, federal and state laws were created in response to make information available to the public regarding registered sexual offenders. As the murder took place in the same state as her university, Wang closely followed the debate over balancing personal privacy with public safety during the development of these “Megan’s Laws.”

She returned to Taiwan in 1995 to work at the National Police Agency’s Criminal Investigation Bureau, which was awash with outreach and legal reform work following the 1993 mariticide case of Ru-wen Deng (鄧如雯). This was during an era when female police officers made up a mere 3% of the total task force, and most members were more interested in “traditional” policing that targeted guns, drugs, and organized crime. Sexual assailants were not on their radar.

Motivated by passion and duty, she volunteered to serve as the liaison officer moderating negotiations between the government and civil groups regarding the proposed domestic abuse bill. This initial foray into gender violence broadened her criminal investigative knowledge and awoke a new desire for change.

After Deng’s case made the news, the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) swiftly moved to establish specialized committees dedicated to sexual assault and domestic violence, respectively in 1997 and 1999, and Wang was entrusted to lead the latter unit.

In those five dedicated years working on two causes, she commuted between the ministry and the police bureau to help introduce preventative measures including the restraining order, and the establishment of officer positions dedicated to policing violence at home or those who target women or children. She became a strong advocate for the then-proposed Child and Youth Sexual Exploitation Prevention Act as well.

This was a formative period where social workers, non-governmental organizations, judges, prosecutors, and police officers such as herself worked side by side to combat violence, creating an unofficial network for collaboration and information exchange. By 2004, faced with stalled career development, she finally decided to quit working for the police and focus on assault prevention by joining NCNU’s Department of Social Policy and Social Work.

By studying a cluster of disciplines related to the department’s core subjects, Wang first facilitated the launch of NCNU’s Center for Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Research (DVCAR), then developed diagnostic tests for campus- or dating-related violence, such as the Taiwan Intimate Partner Violence Danger Assessment (TIPVDA), for use by frontline social workers all across Taiwan.

To minimize trauma, the professor also sought to limit the number of times that victims of abuse needed to repeat their statements in court, as well as the continual cultivation of a “social safety net” to pre-emptively support those from violent households through public-private cooperation.

In recent years, Wang has continued working with others to successfully lobby for more much-warranted legal protection for women and children in Taiwan, especially in areas like human trafficking and sexual exploitation. This success can be partially attributed to shifting societal values and mounting gender equality, which mirror new reformations that are being introduced to the nation’s welfare and outreach programs to strengthen the integrity of Taiwan’s social safety net as a whole.

For example, the Ministry of Justice’s (MOJ) data show a dramatic uptick in reported domestic abuse cases from 2008 to 2017; this decade-long trend flaunted an annual increase of 8.7% in victim numbers and a male-to-female ratio of 6 to 1. Accordingly, central and regional agencies are expanding rapidly, with the prevention-and-response centers in Taiwan’s six largest special municipalities all staffed with 100 to 200 social workers.

Citing violent crimes of passion, intimate partner stalking, coercive control or revenge, and gender-targeted cyberbullying, the professor sees clearly the proliferation of new crimes and predatory behavior in today’s world. Apart from strengthening existing regulations and adopting new ones where there were none, Wang believes that broader personnel training in related fields and services should be initiated now to meet contemporary and especially future demands.

Even with most of her time consumed by teaching, researching, and following up with victims to construct case studies, Wang remains firmly entrenched in civil movements petitioning for legislative reform and inspiring wider cooperation among corporate, government, and academic factions.

For instance, this year she partnered with non-governmental organizations such as Taiwan Coalition Against Violence (TCAV), Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation (TWRF), and The Garden of Hope Foundation (GOH) to form a coalition for criminalizing stalkers in all forms.

The proposed “Stalking Harassment Prevention Act” however, has yet to be legally adopted, for even though weeks of lobbying by the coalition led to the act’s first passage by the Legislative Yuan, subsequent reviews were pushed back by administrative delays. She now wearily awaits for the next legislative session to begin. 

The former police officer knows that Taiwan needs to learn from western practices and prevention theories in order to improve, for Asia itself has made slow progress in this area. Neighboring Japan, for one, has an upward trend of growing abuse cases that has yet to dip down once in the past 15 years, and half of the documented victims have never confided in anyone about their predicament nor sought assistance.

Only 2.2% dialed for the police’s help, Wang says, as she reminds readers that only by reporting abuse will the victim be able to fully benefit from the social welfare system.

While attending international seminars, exchanges, and other forms of dialogue, Wang always thought about how Taiwan also had unique knowledge and experience to share. Thus, she guided TCAV in organizing two editions of the Asia-Pacific Summit on Gender-Based Violence, in which policymakers from across Asia meet in Taipei to fortify the networks that protect women and the young.

Another memorable networking opportunity came up in 2017, when she was asked by the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) to represent Taiwan at a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting on the main messages of the “8th Global Status Report on Violence Prevention.” Due to standard political interference, neither the name of the professor nor her country were included on the official program, but she valued the exposure and chance to contribute to Taiwan’s international credibility through presence and participation.

Policymaking and academia are inseparable, for rigorous research serves as the foundation of good governance. To Wang, these are but two facets of her decades-long and illustrious career — one that is marked by perseverance, compassion, and a Purple Ribbon Award from MOHW for contributing to national protective services.

Taiwan’s Purple Ribbon Award is modeled after international anti-violence purple ribbon campaigns for commending social workers and making their heroic deeds of guarding women and children from violence and abuse known to the public. Exemplary policy-guiding scholars like Wang have truly rewoven the fabrics of Taiwan’s social safety net.

Write to Pei-ling Wang at plwang@ncnu.edu.tw.

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