Gender-based violence is a fear for women around the world, often backed by social and cultural norms that laws do not do enough to combat, but recently Russian women have been given even more reason for concern.
In February of this year, the Russian government announced its shocking decision to roll back protections against women and decriminalize domestic violence, in an amendment signed by President Vladimir Putin. The amendment was introduced to the Russian parliament in response to a previous 2016 bill criminalizing violence against family members. That bill was largely unpopular and met with strong opposition from conservative members of the Federal Assembly, who saw it as an affront to ‘traditional’ values. It also attracted criticism from the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, who issued a statement claiming that the bill “will bring much more harm to society and its moral life than good.” In January, Yelena Mizulina, a conservative Senator, introduced an amendment to reverse the bill, which passed quickly through both houses, 380 votes to 3, and was signed into law by the President on February 7th.
According to Senator Mizulina, women in Russia “don’t take offense when they see a man beat his wife,” adding that “a man beating his wife is less offensive than when a woman humiliates a man.” In addition, in response to the new law, the popular tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, went as far as to glorify the practice: “Recent scientific studies show the wives of angry men have a reason to be proud of their bruises. Biologists say that beaten-up women have a valuable advantage: “they more often give birth to boys!” These comments reflect a casual acceptance, if not encouragement, of gender-based violence that this ruling will continue to uphold.
The new legislation has been forcefully condemned by the international community as well as by women’s rights activists in Russia. It is a major setback for activists, who have been campaigning for an overhaul of Russia’s domestic violence laws since 2014, and Amnesty International described it as “a sickening attempt to further trivialize domestic violence, an issue the Russian government has long attempted to downplay. Far too often, victims find they cannot rely on the law for protection and their abusers are let off the hook, with only a tiny fraction imprisoned for their actions. In addition, the new law downgrades domestic violence to a civil offense, which could potentially incur fines from as little as 5,000 rubles (£65) to 30,000 rubles (£395), although this small penalty is unlikely to be enforced.
There is, more often than not, little to no recourse for the 600,000 Russian women suffering from domestic violence every year. Human Rights Watch reported that, in Moscow, a city of 12 million people, there are fewer than 150 shelters for victims of domestic violence. As one Russian lawmaker told the BBC, “Women don’t often go to the police or the courts regarding their abusive husbands, now there will be even fewer such cases, and the number of murders will increase.” Indeed, prior to the new legislation, the number of domestic assaults in Russia grew by 20% from 2010 to 2015. The new ruling is likely to contribute further to this growth.
With the passing of this law and the subsequent downgrading of domestic violence to a civil offense, women in Russia now find themselves at the mercy of an increasingly ambivalent legislature, who will now take even less seriously their experiences with domestic violence. Women suffering from domestic violence, already dealing with the social and cultural pressures not to report, will now find it even more difficult to come forward and obtain justice. This law is a major setback, not just for Russia and the women living there, but for those around the world who are working to address and eradicate domestic violence. Serious change is needed, and now, to protect victims of these crimes, hold the perpetrators to account, and change both norms and laws to end gender-based violence.
Rachel Vette holds an MA in Gender, Society and Representation from University College London and currently works as the Lead Project Officer for the Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equality Council. She has dedicated her personal and professional life to feminism and promoting gender equality and is always looking for opportunities to explore these areas further.