WMC Women Under Siege

How Russia oppresses women

After dark, the lord and master comes home. His meal is on the table. No one is allowed in the kitchen—he eats in solitary splendor. His child and wife must be silent in another room. If not, he might shout, slap, hit, or choke her. 

“Mommy, did Daddy break you?” their son asks her as she hides her tears.

This is not a fictional drama. This is the story of my friend in Russia, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of more violence at the hands of her husband. This is Russia today, where nearly 60 thousand people are “broken.” These are the victims of domestic violence who have spoken out. Sixteen million is the unofficial figure.

Activist Alena Popova is fighting for criminal penalties against perpetrators of domestic violence in Russia. (Denis Mironov)

“Most victims are women who cower silently in the shadows,” Russian-based social and political activist Alena Popova tells me. Popova is the founder of the Protect Women Project, which works closely with victims of domestic violence.

How can Russia be a peaceful player in the world arena while treating women as second-class citizens, while permitting women to be beaten in their own homes, while opposing women’s empowerment? Russia’s masculine world accepts the use of force against women, creating a cultural norm that shapes the country’s domestic and foreign policy.

Unless an aggressor harms a victim severely—legally defined by breaking her bones or committing repeated offenses in a family setting—domestic violence is legal in Russia. This has been the reality in Russia for more than a year. In 2017, the government enacted a law decriminalizing domestic violence. Perpetrators of this violence are fined for attacking women rather than receiving a criminal penalty. Previously, the criminal offense triggered a jail sentence of up to two years. Today, non-aggravated battery is an administrative offense punishable by a fine of 5,000 to 30,000 rubles (roughly U.S. $88 to $526) or detention of up to 15 days.

“The fine is usually paid out of the housekeeping money,” says Popova. “Moreover, after paying the fee, aggressors often return home to retaliate by beating their wives more severely. Knowing their lives are at risk, victims stop reporting domestic violence.”

“Punishment of the perpetrator should not go against family values,” said Russian Duma member Yelena Mizulina of the law last year. “Such law will protect families from unreasonable intrusion. Everything should remain in the family.”

Conservative thinkers like Mizulina have access to the state-controlled television, lending them the power to shape the nation’s ideology. Within a year of decriminalizing domestic violence, this view was challenged by the horrific near-slaughter of Margarita Gracheva. In Dec. 2017, Gracheva, a mother of two boys, 3 and 5 years of age, was driven by her husband into the forest outside Serpukhov, a city near Moscow. Once there, he chopped off her hands, and left an ax between her ribs. Gracheva had reported abuse before this attack, but the police waited some 20 days to respond. As Russian journalists and bloggers report, when Gracheva asked what took so long, district policeman Alexander Gruznov replied, “This is Russia.”

The best predictor of a state’s stability and peacefulness “is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated,” observed American political science professor Valerie M. Hudson in 2012. Russian women are not protected in their own homes. This method of control is part of how the country maintains its dominance in the region. Russia overpowers neighboring countries and ignores international norms.

Russia’s decriminalization of domestic violence contradicts the spirit of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a treaty to which the country is a signatory. The 2017 law is also at odds with the U.N. Campaign to End Violence Against Women.

Russia’s leadership is not only disinterested in protecting women from bodily harm; it has declined to empower women through international legal standards. Russia does not have a national action plan to implement U.N. Security Council resolution 1325, which urges state actors to include more women’s voices in peace-building processes and negotiations.

Indeed, such a plan could hardly be written in a country where Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Vladislav Surkov, known as “the gray cardinal” of the Kremlin, writes glibly that “This is man’s world,” in an opinion column responding to Western feminism and the #MeToo movement. Surkov asserts that this movement of women’s empowerment should end because women in power are a symptom of the decline of a political system.

“Women have climbed to the top tiers of the political ladder when it is about to collapse,” writes Surkov. “[Men] are creating things for the future…In a word, everything will be once again man-made tomorrow. Made by men.”

How then does Russia see women’s role in society? The Russian government values and promotes women’s role as mothers with generous maternity leave. New mothers can stay on leave for up to three years without worrying about losing their jobs. While this could be perceived as progressive, the policy stems from an ideology that is anything but and seems to serve more as a way to discourage women from working. 

In some universities, academics discourage young women from studying international relations, according to Meduza, a Riga-based news outet.

“Professors remind female students that women have no place in politics and that education is great, but to give birth to three children in these difficult times for the country is more important,” a female student of Saint Petersburg State University told Meduza.

It remains a question whether support of women’s rights can gain ground in Russia.

“No matter how hard Russia is going to push its militarization policies and plan for new nuclear weapons, we are going to push for new legislation to protect victims of domestic violence,” Popova tells me. Domestic abuse is the top issue for those who prioritize the empowerment of Russian women over the power status of the country. Authors of the bill on domestic violence prevention, Alena Popova, Mari Davtyan, and Aleksei Parshin, are advocating for stronger domestic violence legislation, including restraining orders against abusers. As of this week, 279,440 Russians had signed a petition in support of this change.

Popova repeatedly proposed this bill to the Russian Duma, but so far the government has not acted. Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of Russia, said in May 2018 that the number of domestic violence cases has grown. He added that the reason for the increase is the law that decriminalized domestic abuse for first-time offenders that was passed in Russia in 2017.

Meanwhile, the country will be ruled by the same fierce masculine power for the next six years. It is a bright red warning light that the nation is becoming indifferent to human rights, and more accepting of the use of force and coercion at home and abroad.

Russia received a score of zero in protecting women from violence in the latest annual report prepared by the World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law center. Simultaneously—just as foreshadowed by Hudson—many agree that the county’s stability and peacefulness in the international arena is also on decline.

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