Russia Decriminalizes Domestic Abuse

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On Tuesday afternoon, President Vladimir Putin officially signed into law a bill that partially decriminalizes domestic abuse in Russia. This controversial new measure will see domestic abusers face fewer, less severe penalties for their actions.

According to Russian statistics, an estimated 36,000 women and 26,000 children in the country are beaten in their homes every day. According to some reports, one woman dies from domestic abuse every 40 minutes, yet the amendment sailed through both houses of the Russian parliament. Under the proposed new regulations, as long as the assault does not cause serious bodily harm, it will be considered an “administrative offense.” A first-time incident would be punished by a fine of about US $500 or 15 days of community service. If the victim suffers more than just bruising or bleeding- as long as there is no offense more than once a year- there is no further threat of prison; previously, these incidents carried a maximum jail time of two years. It also returns domestic violence to the realm of “private prosecution,” where the victim is responsible for collecting evidence and bringing a case. Repeat offenses would be criminal infractions, but only within a year of the first case-essentially giving abusers a pass to beat relatives once a year.

The legislation reduces assault of a relative to a civil offense instead of a criminal one, and is deeply troubling. Even more disturbing is the fact that this was heavily supported by the female lawmakers in the lower house. The bill was authored and pushed by, among others, two women: Elena Batalina and Olga Mizulina. Mizulina once said in a TV appearance that she thinks women “don’t take offense when they see a man beat his wife,” and that “a man beating his wife is less offensive than when a woman humiliates a man.” Supporters of this law change argue that this will help protect Russian families, arguing that if violence that doesn’t result in a serious injury like broken bones or concussions among strangers is not a criminal offense, why should it among families?

Russia is one of three countries in Europe and Central Asia that do not have laws specifically targeting domestic violence. Instead, it is treated like other forms of assault, ignoring the fact that spouses and children are more vulnerable to violent crimes than other victims. Although difficult to fully measure, according to Russia’s interior ministry, 40% of violent crimes happen within the family. More than 70% of women who call the Anna Centre, Russia’s only violence-prevention charity and hotline, never report their cases to the police. Domestic violence has deep cultural roots in the region though, with an old Russian proverb even stating: “If he beats you it means he loves you.”

“Violence isn’t just a norm, it’s our style of life,” says Alena Popova, an advocate for laws against domestic violence. With this change to private prosecution, which forces victims to navigate legal and bureaucratic obstacles, critics believe this change will dissuade many more from even attempting to prosecute any violence against them. And given the country’s perspective on the issue, these numbers may even drop lower. In a nationwide phone poll of 1,800 people held Jan. 13-15, Russian pollster VTsIOM showed that 19% of Russians believed “it can be acceptable” to hit one’s wife, husband or child “in certain circumstances.”

Russian police are notoriously reluctant to react to domestic violence calls as many see this as ‘meddling in family affairs.'

“Police don’t take complaints of domestic violence seriously,” says Yulia Gorbunoca, a Moscow-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “They say, ‘Call us when he breaks your legs.’”

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