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Image: Kremlin Press Office

Violence forms a part of quarter of all Russian families: 14,000 women a year die from injuries caused by their husbands or relatives.  It is estimates like these, quoted by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs in 2008, that hint at what a Russian Exeter student calls ‘a serious problem in Russia.’

The 2010 report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which included the figures above, recommended that, in line with Russia’s international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ‘the state pass a new law … and thus ensure protection for life, health and safety of women’.

Six years later, Vladimir Putin signed a law making it clear that family violence was equal to a criminal offence.  This meant domestic violence was to be investigated to the same degree as hate crimes (though other forms of violence not causing actual bodily harm were decriminalised).  The code came into force in early July 2016.

Yelena Mizulina is the MP behind the proposed changes to domestic violence legislation. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

But last week saw a step in the opposite direction from the State Duma – Russia’s parliament: a Second Reading of a bill aiming to decriminalise domestic violence.  Anna Kirey, Deputy Director for Campaigns for Russia and Eurasia at Amnesty International, stated that Russia, ‘must halt these plans and instead put together a comprehensive package of measures, in line with the recommendations of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to address the vast scale of domestic violence in Russia.’

In the first reading, 368 MPs approved of the law to have familial battery removed from Russia’s criminal code (one abstained and one opposed).  ‘You don’t want people to be imprisoned for two years and labelled a criminal for the rest of their lives for a slap,’ said the MP spearheading the proposed changes.

That MP is Yelena Mizulina, described by the Moscow Times as an ‘ultraconservative senator‘. She sits at the head of the Duma Committee on Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs and was a key supporter of the ‘gay propaganda’ law, which makes it illegal to circulate material on gay rights.

A Russian University of Exeter student who spoke to me in confidence highlighted the need for balance – both within law and in the media’s reporting of the debate occurring in Russia.  They stress that the situation is ‘very sensitive and complex’.

At its core, the bill seeks to make violence towards family members and non-family members equally punishable. Following Russia’s 2016 amendment, violence towards a non-relative is treated as an administrative offence (receiving a fine or community service punishment). That towards family is immediately a criminal offence (punishable by jail).  What has been dubbed the slapping bill is attempting to define the difference between administrative and criminal offences.

The student I spoke to pointed out that Russian culture sees parents as being correct, and responsible for guiding children – even if that means using light physical punishment to reinforce a point. Mizulina told the Duma, ‘In Russian traditional family culture parent-child relationships are built on the authority of the parents’ power… The laws should support that family tradition’. The Russian Orthodox church agrees – in July it stated that ‘if reasonable and carried out with love, corporal punishment is an essential right given to parents by God’.  Even in the UK, for a parent or carer to smack a child is lawful if it amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’.

If he beats you, it means he loves you

A key point was overlooked by many news sources in the administrative versus criminal punishment debate. The bill states that if the domestic abuse is not the first instance in the family, or if it causes injuries requiring treatment, the punishment would be elevated from administrative to criminal. Therefore, criminal charges would still be brought against anyone committing familial battery of a certain force, or more than once a year.

According to the Congenial Home Centre (also quoted in the report to the UN) 60-70% of women suffering domestic abuse don’t go to the authorities.  ‘The problem,’ says my Russian contact, ‘is not only with the law’. There is not yet the show of strength and support from various aspects of society for an average woman to feel able to stand up to her abusive husband, for example.

If he beats you, it means he loves you.  This is a Russian proverb, confirms the student I spoke to.  They say Russian women rarely want the consequences caused by reporting violence to the police – ‘women are victims of their own hopes’.  A friend of the activist Alena Popova was hospitalised after a severe beating – but, ‘she responded by telling me: “He is perfect; he is my future.  Perhaps this was all my fault.”  This is a powerful woman, an entrepreneur who runs her own business, and her response was not unusual. Most women don’t go to court.  They feel shame; they blame themselves.’  59% of respondents are in favour of softening the current domestic violence law, found a survey by Russia’s state polling agency.

The CEDAW UN report cites a number of case studies which reveal not only general societal opinions, but also those held by people in authority.  A woman who was periodically beaten ran away to a shelter and reported it to the police, but the senior inquiry officer – who was female – refused to instigate criminal proceedings.  The officer’s report describes the defendant as ‘provoking him to commit these acts’ and claims the couple’s child “could have prevented the conflict”.

The journalist Anna Zhavnerovich remembers her experience of reporting abuse, back

A poster urging Russian women to ‘open their eyes’ to the reality of domestic violence. (Image: WIkipedia Commons)

before domestic violence was a crime.  The police asked her if she was married, why she didn’t have any children, and later dropped the case.  When she looked into a private law suit, the police had lost her files.  Her article on the ‘unmentionable subject’ gathered huge public interest and Zhavnerovich received thousands of messages from other victims.  ‘Women have been emancipated since the Soviet Union, but they have never been feminists; that movement is beginning now’, she told The Guardian in 2015.

Popova began a Change.org petition which now has nearly 200,000 supporters.  She disputes the second-chance idea of the bill.  ‘Imagine it: a woman is beaten up by her husband, she makes a complaint, and the husband is given a fine, which he pays out of the family budget. He then comes home and shouts at her for complaining, and you can be 100% sure that next time she’ll just try to hide the bruises and won’t complain.’

Reducing familial battery from criminal to administrative would also increase the reporting burden on the victim.  Under current law, police should investigate report of violence.  If the amendment passes, it would require victims seeking administrative punishment to collect evidence themselves.

The Russian student I spoke to stressed that no law has yet been changed.  The bill needs to be passed a third time by the Duma, and then signed by President Vladimir Putin in parliament’s upper house.  He is under pressure from powers worldwide, including the Council of Europe’s Secretary General who described the potential move as “a clear sign of regression”.  Putin has said it is better to avoid all violence, and that ‘there’s too little distance between a spanking and a beating’.

‘Punishments [for offences] cannot contradict the system of social values that society holds on to’ said Mizulina in her opening statement for the bill’s first reading.  Yet this is in conflict with the CEDAW, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly nearly 40 years ago. Article 5(a) requires that states ‘modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices’.

The decision to reduce the first instance of domestic assault from criminal to administrative is being debated across the world, but it is up to Russia alone to decide how it will balance traditional societal values, the making of laws, and its international obligations.

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Becca is a part-time Biology student who spends far too much time writing, volunteering and petting the gerbils she convinced her landlady to let her keep. Usually found ranting about the environment in her SciTech column, Skyping her dog, mountain biking, or googling "how to write shorter sentences", she is happiest surrounded by cushions and her embarrassingly large collection of soft animal toys.

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