The Brave Women Speaking Out On Domestic Violence In Russia

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“If he beats you, it means he loves you.” So goes an infamous Russian saying – but in a country where 14,000 women die every year as a result of domestic violence, it’s a particularly dangerous one.

Every day in Russia, 36,000 women are assaulted by their partners and 40% of all violent crimes in the country are committed within the family. Despite these figures, last week a new bill which would decriminalise some forms of domestic violence passed its third and final reading in the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, approved by 380 MPs with only three in opposition. What makes this news even more contemptible is the fact that it’s a woman pushing the bill through.

Yelena Mizulina is the ultra-conservative senator behind Russia’s highly controversial ‘gay propaganda’ law, which banned the promotion of "non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, and now she’s turned her attention to family matters. “Battery carried out toward family members should be an administrative offence,” she said when introducing the bill last year. “You don’t want people to be imprisoned for two years and labelled a criminal for the rest of their lives for a slap.”

Marina Pisklakova-Parker, Russia’s leading women’s rights advocate, is understandably concerned. “The problem in the country is there is an underestimation of the dangers of domestic violence,” she says. “There’s this whole notion of saying it’s part of our tradition, but I cannot agree – we cannot call it a tradition, it’s medieval. I truly don’t think that violence and suppression is part of our culture.”

Since 1993, when she founded Russia’s first ever helpline dedicated to supporting victims of domestic violence, Pisklakova-Parker has helped to establish multiple shelters, trained others to help vulnerable women, and campaigned endlessly for domestic violence to be recognised as a crime, both culturally and in Russian law. But now her organisation, the ANNA Centre, is being penalised by the authorities.

Last month, the centre was put on the list of independent groups designated “foreign agents” under a 2012 Russian law, simply because it receives foreign funding. The label can lead to stigmatisation and suspicion from the public and media, and means the organisation is required to reroute considerable resources to administration – essentially, ticking endless boxes to prove that their work is legitimate. “Right now we have to regroup and review our strategy because being on that list limits a lot of things we can do,” Pisklakova-Parker says. “But our motivation is sincere and there is no question about how much the work we do is needed in Russia.”

You need only look at the helpline’s statistics to know this is true. Last year the helpline received 20,000 calls, a marked increase from the year before. The majority of women who call have suffered more than three years of violence before they contact ANNA and, on average, are being abused at least once a month. Most worryingly, for 70% of the women the helpline is the first place they’ve turned to – they have not gone to the police, social services, or other NGOs.

Even before her organisation was targeted by the state, Pisklakova-Parker faced intense intimidation due to the nature of her work, including from one man who made explicit threats against her young son. This is part and parcel of the job for a women’s rights defender in Russia, she says: “It’s normal – we’re always a target because we’re going against a certain culture.” Yet despite the obstacles that she and her organisation encounter, Pisklakova-Parker still has hope.

There’s this whole notion of saying it’s part of our tradition, but I cannot agree – we cannot call it a tradition, it’s medieval

Marina Pisklakova-Parker
“I’m very proud of some things that are happening now. At the end of January there’s a march being planned in Moscow against the decriminalisation. Women from all over Russia are coming and I’m proud that the awareness is high enough that that’s even happening. You have to remember, I started alone – I didn’t know anyone else who would be interested. And now there’s someone else organising this march, which shows a huge wave against the bill already exists.”

Mari Davtyan, a 29-year-old criminal lawyer who works predominantly with survivors of domestic violence, says that the lack of legislation in Russia means that it is very hard to prosecute perpetrators of abuse. “Our criminal law protects victims against violence, but there’s no separate law about domestic violence”, she says. Davtyan recalls one case where a woman had been stalked and beaten on over 20 separate occasions by her ex-husband but struggled to have him prosecuted. “The criminal proceedings took over a year. The police just didn’t take her case seriously and there were months when nothing happened, they didn’t collect any evidence or try and move things forward.”

Davtyan says that often, those reporting incidents of domestic violence are not listened to or are disbelieved, and cases are simply not prioritised by the police or the criminal justice system. One of the worst cases she has encountered was of a father sexually abusing his daughter. “It was absolutely horrible. When the mother found out what happened, she went to the police but they didn’t help her. The father then took their daughter to Thailand where he abused her again and he even sent a video of him doing this to their daughter to her. Still the police didn’t make a case against him.”

Despite the significant and deep-rooted problems facing domestic violence survivors in Russia, and those fighting for their rights, both Pisklakova-Parker and Davtyan believe that there may yet be hope. While Pisklakova-Parker thinks that President Putin may refuse to sign the bill – stopping it at its final stage – the two women agree that media coverage has, at the very least, boosted awareness and debate on the subject. “People are talking about it more now,” Davtyan says. “There’s such a stigma around this issue, but now it’s being discussed more openly.”

At the time of publication, a Change.org petition set up in opposition to the bill had received more than 230,000 signatures, and a fortnight ago Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe sent a letter to the Duma expressing his grave concerns regarding the proposed changes to the law.

“I call upon you to do anything within your powers to strengthen the right of Russian families to live free from violence and intimidation,” he wrote. “Reducing ‘battery within the family’ from a criminal to an administrative offence, with weaker sanctions for offenders, would be a clear sign of regression within the Russian Federation and would strike a blow to global efforts to eradicate domestic violence.”

The bill will now go to the upper house for approval and, from there, to Putin – so it may not be long before the amendment is passed and the punishment for domestic abuse reduced to nothing more than a fine. For those working to defend women’s rights and protect survivors of domestic violence, it’s clear that their role remains a vital necessity.

“Domestic violence was the story that no one spoke about,” Pisklakova-Parker says. “Now we are talking about it, but there’s so much more to be done.”
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