MOSCOW (WOMENSENEWS)–“He’s successful, earns a good salary, so he thinks he has a special entitlement,” says Anna Kazakova, a 30-year-old journalist, referring to her husband of five years. “He owns me and has a right to beat me. And I am supposed to worship him.”
Kazakova’s just decided it’s enough. “He can eat his money and beat somebody else,” she says of her forthcoming divorce.
Every fourth family in Russia experiences some form of domestic violence, with 82 percent of such crimes being committed by husbands, according to government statistics. Each year, about 14,000 women die at the hands of their husbands or intimate partners. In the United States, by comparison, this number stands at about 1,200, according to the 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics Report. Russia’s population is 144 million; the U.S. population is 293 million.
“The number of women dying every year at the hands of their husbands and partners in the Russian Federation is roughly equal to the number of all soldiers who died in the 10-year war of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan,” says Natalya Abubikirova, executive director of the Russian Association of Crisis Centers. The Moscow-based umbrella organization of 32 groups advocates for women’s rights and seeks to raise awareness to prevent discrimination and violence against women.
In 1995 the United Nations adopted the so-called Beijing Declaration Platform for Action to raise the status of women and promote gender equality. There has been some response here with a handful of shelters opening throughout the country and public awareness campaigns beginning to have some effect. Compared to other industrialized nations, however, resources and information remains scant.
Moreover, 10 years later, many women here still play a servile household role, women’s rights activists in the country say.
“We’ve had a case when the husband broke his wife’s jaw just because an omelet she served him was white,” says Alexandra Kraeva, coordinator of the Russian Association of Crisis Centers. “She covered the omelet while cooking it, so it turned white, that’s all. In another family, the wife was left with a broken tooth and a cut brow. She gave her husband soup that wasn’t hot enough.”
Women’s rights groups in major Russian cities operate hot lines for battered women and collect cases and statistical information. Yet, efforts to systematize data are complicated by the shame many Russian women feel in making their family troubles public.
“Women must be very strong to say ‘no’ even to an unhappy marriage,” one victim told the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization. “They often fear that people will look down on them for failing to build a family. Many women suffer through beatings in silence to preserve a social status of a happily married woman.”
While Kazakova’s batterings may be borne by many wives, her decision to seek a divorce is unusual.
Divorce is not stigmatized in Russia, but being alone is. There is a general pressure to get married as soon as possible, and as a result many women marry men they hardly know. If these women change their minds about their marriage or if they face domestic violence, they often don’t have an opportunity to divorce because of financial dependence on their husbands.
In a 2003 Ministry of the Interior report that polled victims of domestic violence, 76 percent of the women said they had suffered from abuse for a long time before reporting it to the police or making it public in some other way. The report lists some of the common reasons given by the women: “Didn’t believe that the law enforcement would help,” “Was afraid of revenge,” “Was afraid of losing housing, had nowhere to go,” “Was afraid of public scorn,” “Didn’t want to leave the kids without a father.”
Another 2003 study found that most Russian women blame themselves for being beaten or abused by their husbands. In cases of domestic conflict that ends with violence, women are not likely to seek outside help. Rather, they will keep the problem inside the family and consider themselves at fault.
Charges Against Russian Law Enforcement
In 1997 the New York-based Human Rights Watch charged Russian law enforcement with not adequately investigating and prosecuting domestic-violence charges and failing an international human rights obligation.
Since then, Russia in 2001 adopted a national plan for promoting women’s rights, which spelled out measures to protect women’s health and to improve their access to economic opportunity. The government has also formulated a so-called Gender Strategy to ensure equal rights and opportunities for men and women.
Responding to a U.N. questionnaire on its implementation of the Beijing Platform, the government said in 2004 that “the problem of violence against women is viewed in society as a violation of human rights requiring the intervention of the state.”
The government’s commitment to women’s rights, however, was undermined last year by the parliament’s failure to pass a bill on domestic violence.
In 2004, the Kremlin also abolished the inter-governmental commission set up in 1996 to promote gender equality and women’s rights.
Also in 2004, Amnesty International reported that perpetrators of domestic violence “were rarely brought to justice, in part as a result of the reluctance of the police to intervene in what they perceived as a private manner.”
Courts in Russia have provided little encouragement to women hoping for help there.
In one case recorded by the Moscow-based crisis center ANNA, the husband of a young female pianist broke all of her fingers in a jealous rage. The court found him guilty of causing slight physical damage and gave him a suspended sentence. For the woman, however, the incident was more than “slight harm.” It ended her career, according to the center.
“Men who beat or rape their wives or commit other acts of violence in the family are unlikely to face prosecution in the Russian Federation,” according to a 2003 Amnesty International report. “Many victims seeking to prosecute their abusers face indifference or neglect at the hands of the police and the courts. The police often fail to register such cases properly and to conduct thorough investigations; the criminal justice system often denies the victims their right to justice.”
Women also perpetrate domestic violence, but 9 out of 10 use violence against their husbands in response to being attacked, the Ministry of the Interior has reported.
“One time I snapped at my husband,” says Kazakova, the journalist. “He was going to hit me, and all of a sudden everything inside me exploded. I grabbed a kitchen knife and started chasing him around the apartment. He actually had to cut his arm hoping that a sight of blood would cool me down. Still, I beat him pretty bad; he had several cuts and a black eye. I didn’t know what I was doing; it was like a defense reaction.”
Mariya Rasner is a Ukrainian-born journalist working in Moscow while permanently residing in Fairfax, Va. She has worked for Internews Network and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.