The 84-page report, “‘I Could Kill You and No One Would Stop Me’: Weak State Response to Domestic Violence in Russia,” details the barriers survivors face in reporting abuse and getting help. They include social stigma, lack of awareness, and lack of trust in police. Police often refuse to register or investigate women’s reports of domestic violence, instead funneling victims into the patently unfair and extremely burdensome process of private prosecution, for which the victim must gather all necessary evidence and bear all costs. Human Rights Watch also found that survivors face obstacles to finding emergency shelter.
“Women in Russia are often left to face domestic violence completely on their own,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Existing laws simply do not protect them when they become caught in a cycle of repeated abuse, with nowhere to turn.”
The report is based on 69 in-depth interviews with women throughout Russia who experienced domestic violence, and with lawyers and other experts, activists, women’s rights groups, shelter staff, and government officials.
While official statistics on domestic violence in Russia are fragmented, several indicators suggest it is pervasive. Official studies suggest that at least every one out of five women in Russia has experienced physical violence at the hands of a husband or partner.
Women interviewed for the report described being choked, punched, beaten with wooden sticks and metal rods, burned, threatened with weapons, sexually assaulted and raped, pushed from balconies and windows, having their teeth knocked out, and subjected to severe psychological abuse. For women with children, the violence typically began or escalated while they were pregnant, and their children were also exposed to the violence. The violence typically escalated over time, in some cases lasting years, with a severe and enduring impact on survivors’ physical and psychological health.
“I lived with him for 10 years,” said “Antonina,” a 33-year-old domestic violence survivor. “Once he hit my head against a sharp corner of the wall and forced me out of the flat while the wound on my head was pouring blood. But while we were together, I knew I had to bear it … I thought I needed to keep the family together. If I knew [that there was help available] I would have left him much earlier and my son would not be as psychologically traumatized now.”
Russia does not have a national domestic violence law, and it is not a standalone offense in either the criminal or administrative code. Russian law also does not provide for protection orders, which could help keep women safe from recurrent violence by prohibiting contact between a victim and her abuser. The lack of such laws reinforces an impression, held by many, that the authorities do not see domestic violence as a significant crime or a matter of public concern, Human Rights Watch said.
Parliament adopted controversial legislative amendments in February 2017 that decriminalized first battery offenses among family members – a serious setback that reduced penalties for abusers and put survivors at even greater risk. Russian women’s rights groups, activists, and human rights lawyers have urged the adoption of a domestic violence law for years. Several top officials publicly criticized the amendments and acknowledged that they have led to even more violence.
Russia should urgently adopt a comprehensive domestic violence law, Human Rights Watch said. It should also sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. Russia is one of only two Council of Europe member states that have neither signed nor ratified the convention.
Domestic violence in Russia is still predominantly viewed as a private, “family” matter, Human Rights Watch found. Police, courts, and sometimes even service providers blame the victims and advise women seeking protection to reconcile with their abusers or avoid “provoking” them. Lawmakers who pushed for the 2017 decriminalization amendments equated efforts to prevent and punish domestic violence as interference in the Russian family and an assault on “traditional values.”
“Domestic violence is not a ‘traditional value,’ and the fact that it happens behind closed doors does not make it a ‘family matter,’ Gorbunova said. “The Russian government has a responsibility to protect survivors of domestic violence, not shut the door in their face as the abuse continues.”
State resources for survivors of domestic violence are limited and well below levels recommended by the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member. Russia has few spaces in shelters that specialize in protecting women from domestic violence. Some state-run shelters require a daunting amount of paperwork. They may take weeks to decide about granting shelter space to survivors, many of whom are in a state of crisis and face threats of further violence.
The Russian parliament should adopt a law that treats domestic violence as a standalone criminal offense to be investigated and prosecuted by the state, rather than through private prosecution. It should also adopt legal provisions creating both immediate and longer-term protection orders. Russian authorities should also ensure that police respond effectively to reports of domestic violence, and that women facing domestic violence, including in rural areas, have effective access to support services, including, if needed, emergency temporary shelter.
“If the Russian government does not act fast to change the situation, it will continue to put lives at risk and leave survivors of domestic violence to face abuse on their own,” Gorbunova said. “Parliament needs to pass a domestic violence law and back it up with services that survivors urgently need.”