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Brutal Killing In Russia Highlights Lack Of Domestic Violence Law

The husband of Irina Kabanova, 39, confessed to strangling her to death after an argument.
The husband of Irina Kabanova, 39, confessed to strangling her to death after an argument.
MOSCOW -- When Aleksei Kabanov appealed on his blog just after New Year's for help finding his missing wife, Irina, it evoked sympathy.

But this soon turned to disgust and horror when police discovered her dismembered body and Kabanov, 39, confessed on January 11 to strangling her to death after the two had a vicious argument.

Irina Kabanova (also 39) was just one of thousands of women who are killed in domestic violence incidents in Russia every year. But the publicity her case has generated has helped drive the issue of spousal abuse out from the shadows, shining a spotlight on a problem that has long been belittled and ignored.

Olga Kostina, head of the Moscow-based group Resistance, which advocates on behalf of domestic-violence victims, is at the forefront of the struggle.

"The key is for us to battle for a law to defend the victims of these crimes and to provide them with social guarantees that in any case are supposed to be ensured by the Russian Constitution," she says.

That Russia, more than a decade into the 21st century, has no law specifically addressing the issue of domestic violence has long infuriated women's rights advocates.

Speaking to journalists earlier on January 15, Kostina, a member of Russia's Public Chamber, which advises the Kremlin, said a bill would be introduced in the State Duma as early as February.

'Liberal Crazies'

The bill has been in the works since September of last year, though the public attention currently focused on the issue appears to have built up momentum.

But efforts to address the issue have also drawn opposition. "So the liberal crazies are trying to introduce the western model to destroy the family? It’s time to drive out this Kostina," one commentator wrote in the online newspaper "Vzglyad."

According to those familiar with the proposed legislation, it would recognize domestic violence as a crime, empower police and courts to issue restraining orders, and require offenders to undergo counseling.

If an effective domestic violence bill passes and is signed into law, advocates say it would mark a breakthrough in a country where, according to various estimates, between 10,000 and 14,000 women die each year from spousal abuse -- as many as one every 40 minutes.

Battered women currently find little recourse under the law, activists say.

Many women are economically dependent on their husbands and are reluctant to report abuse -- and doing so can also lead to more violence. Police, meanwhile, cannot intervene until a crime has been committed, by which time it is often too late.

Mari Davtian, an attorney with the ANNA Center, which assists victims of domestic violence, suggests only one in 10 abused women file complaints.

"A woman herself has to file a case to the court and prove that she was subjected to a crime," he said. "As you understand, that is practically impossible in conditions of domestic violence. If a woman lives with the person she is taking to court, then she is in danger."

Russia’s legislation lags behind many of its post-Soviet neighbors on the issue. "Unfortunately, we are one of the last to pass such a law," Davtian says.

She has pointed out that Lithuania's law on family violence has cut spousal abuse by up to 70 percent in that country. In Moldova, a similar law led to a 30-percent drop.

Davtian has also drawn attention to the fact that nearly all European countries have a domestic-violence law.

Dearth Of Infrastructure

Russia also lacks the infrastructure to support abused women. Activists note, for example, that there are only 40 state shelters for victims of domestic violence across Russia's vast territory.

"Let's say a man is beating a woman," says Mikhail Vinogradov, the director of the Center for Legal and Psychiatric Help in Extreme Situations. "She says I won't live with you any more. But he won't leave the apartment. This is a common problem. The woman can say, I'll leave myself. But where can she go? This is not just a purely psychological problem. It is also a social problem. Where can a woman go if she has no place to go?"

There have been scattered attempts to introduce domestic violence legislation in Russia, dating back to the 1990s, but each time it has ended in failure.

United Russia lawmaker Saliya Murzabayeva, who is backing the current effort, believes this stemmed from a lack of understanding of the issue.

"There probably is not enough awareness of this problem," she says. "And there are those who believe that the government should not interfere in family matters."

The question on many people's lips is whether things will be different this time: will Irina Kabanova's horrific killing be the event that shocks the system into action?

Andrei Sinelnikov, the ANNA Center's deputy director, will be watching closely.

"We really hope that [the bill] is going to be passed," he says. "We participated in the drafting of this law. It would simply be a very positive development if they pass it. It could save a lot of lives."

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