In an unnecessary but dramatic attempt to stand out, Russia’s Duma has decided to take a major step back from international standards on the human rights of women. On 25 January 2017, some 385 MPs of the Russian Parliament agreed to decriminalise domestic violence, placing the issue atop the agenda for 2017. With only two brave votes against and one slightly less brave abstention, the Duma (the lower chamber), passed a text on the second reading which will relegate certain categories of domestic violence currently falling under battery, from a criminal offence to an administrative one. Today, the bill sailed through the Duma on its third reading, and only needs signing into law by Vladimir Putin.
From now on domestic violence which does not bring “lasting harm” or is not a repeated offence will carry a punishment of just 30,000 roubles, a 15-day detention or community service. This law reveals that the ultimate victims of Russia’s ultra-conservative political posturing are the Russian people themselves. The Duma is making it painfully clear that the health and protection of its citizens stand far beneath the need to score a political point.
Furthermore, this posturing plays to an image the Kremlin projects to audiences at home and abroad. On the global stage, this shows Russia turning its back on international human rights norms. On the domestic front, it plays into a narrative of so-called “traditional values.”
Traditional values at home
The ultra-conservative Duma deputy Elena Mizulina is the author and engine behind the current draft law and one of the faces of the traditional values and religious lobbies in Russia. She has buttressed her career by capitalising on outrageous propositions that either play out as publicity stunts or are sometimes realised if they overlap with the Kremlin’s agenda.
The Duma has made it clear that the health and protection of its citizens stand far beneath the need to score political points.
Best known for being the lead author of the 2014 anti-gay law against so-called “gay propaganda”, Mizulina has also placed herself in the spotlight with such outlandish proposals as prohibiting women access to university education prior to giving birth and reducing access to contraception. Mizulina was also the lead author of the law banning the adoption of Russian children by American parents. This was Russia’s retaliation to US sanctions imposed against Russian officials involved in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison after attempting to expose high-level government-sanctioned fraud.
All of this is in the pursuit of supposed traditional Russian values by which women and children are subservient to their husbands and fathers. In alignment with the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, the responsibility for Russia’s declining demographics is placed on women and the LGBTI community, with “foreign” liberal values depicted as a threat to national security and interests.
As an example, developing on her position of having women give birth prior to university, Mizulina pointed to the times of Tsarist Russia, explaining that while women were mostly illiterate they would still frequently bear 10-12 children over their lifetime. This was a perverse nod to Russia, with its declining population, being better served with women who are less educated but bear children in large numbers. Given this professed commitment to the national interests of Russia, the dismissal of the extensive consequences of domestic violence at all levels is contradictory, harmful and absurd.
“Foreign agents” under the bed
In recent years, the Kremlin has strategically worked to undermine the international human rights regime at the global level and at the regional level in Europe. It increasingly rejects human rights as being inconsistent with Russian traditional values.
For example, in recent years the Kremlin has severely cracked down on Russian civil society with a series of measures including a law by which NGOs receiving funding from donors abroad are labeled “foreign agents” and face harassment and persecution by the authorities. This has received ample criticism from both the United Nations and the Council of Europe, as some of the oldest and most respected Russian organisations like Memorial have been targeted. Russia also famously adopted legislation permitting official discrimination and persecution of the LGBTI community in Russia, allowing vigilante violence against LGBTI persons to go unpunished.
Responsibility for Russia’s declining demographics is placed on women and the LGBTI community, with “foreign” liberal values depicted as a threat to national security.
Loosening laws against domestic violence gives the green light to both perpetrators and to authorities to further resist and violate international human rights norms, falsely framed as being in opposition to traditional Russian values. Unlike civil society, which challenges the Kremlin establishment, and the LGBTI community which is perceived as challenging the Orthodox Church and its homophobia, violence against women does not fit so easily in this narrative of denial and resisting “foreign influence”.
Battery, which ostensibly does not result in “serious” harm to health or is committed less than once a year, actually affects a substantial portion of the country’s population. Moreover, acts of domestic violence that are reported once a year, are far from a reliable mark of how often it actually occurs. Similarly it is not realistic for the police to substantiate what is a first-time offender, unless women are encouraged to come forward in the first place.
In her speech at the Duma hearing before the vote in the draft law’s first reading on 11 January 2017, Mizulina declared that bringing criminal responsibility in such cases is anti-family, discriminatory and allows for undue intrusion from the outside. This, of course, she saw as “against Russian values.” This implicit framing of resisting domestic violence as somehow being an internationally imposed ultimately betrays ignorance on top of disregard.
A life-long burden
Conservative estimates establish that within the global pandemic of violence against women, 12-15% of women suffer from domestic violence. This translates into at least 8.5 million women across Russia who experience domestic violence.
Violence takes place in one in four families in Russia, with two-thirds of homicides attributable to “household or domestic motives”, and a reported 14,000 women dying per year as a result.
Moreover, according to a report by the Russian NGO ANNA, the National Centre for the Prevention of Violence, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs admitted in 2008 that violence takes place in one in four families in Russia, with two-thirds of homicides attributable to “household or domestic motives”, and a reported 14,000 women dying per year as a result. In all probability, even these awful numbers may be higher as domestic violence is notoriously under-reported and under-documented.
International law recognises that domestic violence can amount to conditions of torture and ill-treatment and violations in the right to life. Gender-based discrimination by governments that do not adequately respond to the problem compounds the problem. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation has also identified many short and long-term social and economic costs of domestic violence. Women who have experienced intimate violence from partners are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression and drinking problems. Consequences also include post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders, sleep difficulties, eating disorders, and suicide attempts.
Moreover, intimate partner violence in pregnancy increases the likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-term delivery and babies with a lower weight at birth. Therefore even implying a more tolerant position on domestic violence contradicts Mizulina’s major concern of reversing Russia’s population decrease. The long-term consequences of domestic violence not only reduce the quality of life of the survivors, but also diminish their ability to contribute to society, their families and children.
As for the impact on children who grow up with violence in the family, they may suffer a range of behavioural and emotional disturbances as a result of the trauma. There is also a correlation between experiencing violence in the family as children and perpetrating violence later in life or having a higher acceptance and tolerance for experiencing violence as adults.
What’s the way forward?
Signing this bill into law would not only put more lives at risk, but would perpetuate a justice system that continues to ignore the problem. It would send a strong message to both perpetrators of domestic violence and their victims about the tolerance of the authorities and the impunity that awaits them. Perhaps most egregiously, it dissuades women from reporting violence and reduces trust in law enforcement and justice officials to punish domestic violence. Moreover, it reduces the responsibility of the Russian authorities to address an internationally recognised crisis within their borders.
Given the gravity of this development, on 16 January 2017, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbøjrn Jagland addressed a letter directly to the heads of both chambers of the Russian Parliament, the Federation Council and the State Duma. In an unusual move reserved for the most serious and urgent situations, the Secretary General criticised the proposed legal amendment after it had passed the Duma’s first reading, calling it a “sign of regression.”
The sad fact of the matter is that there was once a readiness among the Russian authorities to tackle the problem, with a draft domestic violence law prepared in 2012.
A sad fact of the matter is that there was once a readiness among the Russian authorities to tackle the problem. According to a 2015 report by the ANNA National Centre for the Prevention of Violence, in recent years Russia came closer to passing a specialised domestic violence law. Extensive drafting of the law took place with the civil society and federal authorities starting in 2012, under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour and Social Development. It was even backed by the president’s Council for Civil Society and Human Rights.
Although a specialised law has yet to be adopted, in July 2016, amendments introduced by the Supreme Court of Russia were adopted by the Duma which made assault by family members subject to public prosecution. This was a welcome change from the previous private prosecution approach, by which it was the responsibility of the survivor to collect and furnish evidence and bring the case to court with the help of expensive legal counsel. The removal of this substantial hurdle shows that there is, or was, an appreciation of the need to tackle domestic violence.
It would therefore be unfortunate if Russia continues to exclude itself from international advances in this arena. International recognition of the urgent need for governments to take action to fight and prevent violence against women has hugely risen over the past decade. Amidst global efforts, many successes have been achieved. Key among them has been the entry into force of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention.
Since 2011, when the Convention was adopted by the Council of Europe and opened for signature and ratification, of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, Russia is one of only four that still have not signed the Convention. This is despite Russia having taken an active part in the 2008-2010 negotiations leading up to the adoption of the final text, attended by of senior representatives of the Office of the Prosecutor General of Russia, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Istanbul Convention has been hailed by governments and activists around the world as the most progressive binding international instrument putting forth a thorough framework on preventing, prosecuting, and eliminating violence against women and domestic violence. Importantly, it defines different forms of gender-based violence including domestic violence, stalking, and sexual harassment, distinguishing between physical, sexual and psychological violence. The Convention ensures that perpetrators are prosecuted and requires states to take a range of measures to ensure the effective investigation of allegations of violence against women. Under the convention, law enforcement agencies have to respond to all reported cases, collect evidence and assess the risk of future violence to adequately protect the victim.
Had Russia signed and ratified the Istanbul Convention, Mizulina’s convoluted, harmful, and self-serving platform would have been more easy to counter by her opponents. By distancing Russia from the Convention and not taking part in its monitoring mechanism, Russian authorities are doing a great disservice to the millions of people continuing to suffer the egregious consequences of domestic violence.
Russian authorities must signal their commitment to their own people’s right to be safe from domestic violence. The Duma should drop this bill, and reinvigorate efforts to adopt the draft domestic violence bill. Ultimately, Russia should sign and ratify the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention without further delay.
Millions of women, men and children are counting on it.
This article originally appeared on Open Democracy.