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Russia: Report Reveals Lax Response To Abuse Of Women's Rights

By Esther Pan

Washington, 15 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Calling violence against women in Russia "a chronic and overwhelming problem," an international human rights organization says in a new report that instead of protecting women from sexual and domestic violence, the Russian government is making it harder for them to get help.

The report, titled "Too Little, Too Late: The State Response to Violence Against Women in Russia," was published by the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project.

It says that government statistics show nearly 11,000 women in Russia reported rape or attempted rape in 1996. But adds that sexual violence is notoriously underreported, and women's rights groups in Russia claim the actual prevalence of such crimes is much greater. However, there are no exact figures available, as the Russian government does not gather statistics on domestic violence; a failure which Human Rights Watch calls "astonishing neglect."

Dorothy Q. Thomas, director of the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project, stated that "Instead of fighting the society-wide problem of violence against women, the Russian government suggests by word and deed that it accepts that women can be assaulted in the street or in their homes with no recourse for the victims and few consequences for the attackers."

The report says domestic and sexual violence against women is a growing problem in Russia. Rape or attempted rape accounted for about 8 percent of all reported crimes in 1996, but Yekaterina Lakhova, head of the Russian Presidential Commission on Women, Children and Demographics, estimates that this figure represents less than 5 percent of all domestic violence occurring in the country. She estimates that 30 to 40 percent of murders in Russia are committed by one family member against another, with women and children the most frequent victims, and that 14,000 women are killed by husbands or family members each year.

The report, based on interviews with victims, police officers, prosecutors and doctors in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sergeyev Posad, Murmansk, and Nizhni Tagil, found that "rather than combating violence against women, the Russian law enforcement system creates numerous and substantial obstacles toward that end."

The report cites repeated instances of hostility, reluctance and bias at all levels of the legal system toward women who have been raped, from police officers and prosecutors who often blame the victim, to doctors who conduct medical examinations focusing on the victim's virginity instead of physical evidence of rape.

The report says the widespread skepticism of officials often leads to flawed or negligent investigations, with officers failing to gather important medical and psychological evidence until it is too late. The study also found that police officers frequently fail to protect rape victims from violence or harassment committed against them by the alleged offenders and their families.

The report makes several recommendations to the Russian government and the international community, including increasing attention and resources to guarantee the protection of women's rights.

However, the report says that recent diplomatic efforts, particularly on the part of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, "have done little to change high-level indifference to the brutality Russian women endure without recourse."

Lola Karimova, director of Syostri (sisters), a sexual assault recovery center in Moscow agrees, saying: "Things are starting to change [for women who experience violence] in that there are hotlines, support groups and women who understand them and are willing to listen. But I haven't seen a change in the government. If anything had changed, they would set up shelters and clinics."