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Russia: Domestic Violence Continues To Take Heavy Toll

Pop star Valeria was beaten by her husband for 10 years (Courtesy Photo) Every hour, a woman in Russia is killed by her husband, partner, or relative. A handful of crisis centers across the country offer victims legal and psychological assistance. But rights groups say the problem cannot be squarely tackled until the authorities recognize violence in the family as a serious human rights violation, instead of dismissing it as a private matter.

Moscow, 15 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Domestic violence takes place in every country and affects women and their children from all social backgrounds.

Some nations, however, have been more active than others in combating this type of violence, which Amnesty International brands "the biggest human rights scandal of our times."

In a report released yesterday, called "Nowhere To Turn To," the rights group accuses Russia of severe negligence in protecting women from domestic violence.

According to Amnesty International, 70 percent of married women in Russia have been subjected to physical, psychological, or sexual violence at home.

Official figures show that 9,000 women were killed by their husbands and relatives in Russia in 2003, out of a population of 143 million. Rights groups, however, say this figure could be much higher.

In comparison, rights groups say between 2,000 and 3,500 women die of domestic violence annually in the United States, a country of almost 300 million.


So why does Russia have such a poor track record in fighting this type of violence?

Firstly, domestic violence enjoys a certain level of tolerance in Russia, where it is largely viewed as a private family issue.

Many beaten women are therefore afraid of speaking out for fear of public stigma, and also for fear their batterers will seek revenge.

In a recent interview with Amnesty International, Valeria, a famous Russian pop singer, said she was beaten by her husband for 10 years before leaving him.

"I kept quiet about it for 10 years, because had I even hinted anywhere that I was having family problems, things would have gotten a lot worse for me," Valeria said. "It was a vicious circle. I couldn't confide in anyone. Only people very close to me knew what a disastrous situation I was in. If my safety, my physical safety, and that of my children had been guaranteed, I would not have remained silent."

Women who decide to flee their batterers very rarely have access to a crisis center, let alone a shelter. Rights groups estimate that less than 200 centers and shelters for victims of domestic violence currently operate in Russia.

And the number of shelters is dwindling. Andrei Sinelnikov, the deputy director of the Moscow anti-violence organization ANNA, says many shelters have had to close down after state funds were slashed.

Moscow itself does not have a single shelter -- the closest facility lies in the city's outskirts, but for administrative reasons only women residing in the area have access to it.

Bad Policing

Amnesty International also blames law-enforcement agencies for often refusing to assist victims and investigate domestic violence crimes.

Friederike Behr is the group's coordinator in Russia.

"A woman called the police 15 times in one night, and the police didn't come. When we spoke to her, we were sitting in her room and she showed us where it [police station] was, just 500 meters away from her home," Behr said. "Another woman called the police after her husband beat her. She was told: 'We'll come only when there's a dead body.' Even when the police do turn up, they arrest the husband, detain him for a few hours, and then he goes back home."

Russian legislation offers little protection for victims of domestic violence. Yelena Shitova of the Women's Alliance group in the Altai region says women seeking to prosecute their husbands face severe legal and bureaucratic hurdles.

"Many cases about domestic violence are classified as private accusations, and the maximum sentence for such cases is three years in prison. In this situation, the woman, as a private accuser, has to gather the documents on her own, present herself, carry out the legal proceedings," Shitova said. "This is a very difficult task, considering that the whole population is totally ignorant about its rights."

Money is another obstacle that discourages many women from seeking justice, since victims of domestic violence are not entitled to the free services of a lawyer.

Shitova says hiring a lawyer in the Altai region costs some 3,000 rubles -- at just over $100, this represents the average monthly salary in the region.

She says Russia should follow the example of former Soviet states such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which adopted a separate law on domestic violence to assist victims and help them prosecute offenders.

But there is also some good news. In some regions, law-enforcement agencies and local administrations are actively working with crisis centers to prevent and combat domestic violence.

Shitova says her group runs regular domestic abuse prevention training for law-enforcement officials. The Altai authorities have also set up a crisis center and a hot line for victims.

Amnesty International, however, laments that Russia still lacks a systematic, countrywide approach to domestic violence, and has called on the federal authorities to take decisive measures to tackle the issue.

And the government's negligence, anti-violence campaigner Sinelnikov warns, may have long-term consequences since boys who witnessed domestic violence at home are more likely to beat women.

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