How women’s crisis centers operate in the Northern Caucasus
In Russia, crisis centers for women facing domestic violence are in short supply even in large cities like Moscow and Kazan. In the Northern Caucasus, the situation surrounding domestic violence is even more complex due to practices like honor killings and bride kidnappings as well as a widespread disapproval of extramarital sex. Those who run and work for crisis centers in the Northern Caucasus regularly confront problems that are very rare elsewhere in Russia. Maria Klimova asked how those centers persist nonetheless.
The Russian edition of this article is part of Meduza’s MeduzaCare project, which is dedicating the month of January to coverage of domestic violence.
In 2009, Madina was a 22-year-old medical student. That was the year she was kidnapped and raped by a Makhachkala police officer named Ruslan. Makhachkala is the capital of Dagestan, a Russian federal republic in the Northern Caucasus, and Madina was performing in a folk dance ensemble there when Ruslan saw her and began his pursuit. Neither her own objections nor the fact that she was already engaged deterred the police officer from stalking her.
When Madina visited her home village to prepare for her wedding, Ruslan followed her, eventually dragging her into a car. After the policeman called Madina’s family to say she would be living with him from now on, not her husband-to-be, the young woman said, “My relatives didn’t take much of an interest in how I was doing, what was happening in my life. If they stole you, they stole you, now live with it.” Ruslan and Madina were married in an Islamic wedding; it is not uncommon for couples in Dagestan to forego a legal marriage.
The medical student tried to escape to her former life multiple times without success. Over time, she began making peace with her husband, who allowed her to return to her studies, albeit under strict supervision from his relatives. “I gradually started getting used to him. Regardless of who he was, I didn’t have anyone aside from Ruslan, and he was always nearby,” Madina said. “We started dreaming of having a child. When we found out about the pregnancy, we were both very happy.”
Ruslan beat Madina for the first time when she was three months pregnant. He drunkenly demanded a blow job. She refused, and he punched her in the face, leaving a black eye that lasted for weeks. “A couple of days later, Ruslan admitted that, on his friends’ advice, he had wanted to check whether I was an honorable woman,” Madina explained. That time, she forgave him. Just weeks later, he told her he was leaving her for another woman. She said she still feels the humiliation of begging him to stay because she had nowhere else to go.
The marriage only got worse. At one point, Ruslan slammed his young son against the wall for lightly slapping his face, and Madina, who was peeling potatoes at the time, attacked her husband with her knife. Ruslan pulled it away from her and stabbed her several times. Both she and her son were hospitalized for their injuries.
Ruslan and Madina divorced in 2011. She married again, but her second husband accused her of adultery when she got pregnant and kicked her out of their home. Madina posted on Instagram asking for help, and Farida Bakhshieva responded.
Bakhshieva is the deputy director of Warm House on the Mountain, a protection center for women and children that opened a shelter in 2017. When she first met Madina in a hospital birth ward, the young woman was still prepared to forgive her second husband. Now, she is back in her home village, caring for her children and grandmother and dreaming of a chance to return to Makhachkala.
Makhachkala’s Warm House on the Mountain
Warm House on the Mountain’s shelter is a three-room (not three-bedroom) apartment in the Dagestani capital. It’s usually packed, with four or five women and their children living in the shelter at any given time. Warm House on the Mountain offers three-month housing agreements to each family that can be extended to six months in rare cases.
Farida Bakhshieva said the shelter’s primary goal is to prepare women for self-sufficiency. Many have never worked, and some are in a state of severe depression when they arrive at the shelter. Bakhshieva and her staff support them and prepare them to become dishwashers, janitors, nannies, and other working professionals.
If necessary, the shelter can also provide legal help in obtaining support payments from the women’s husbands. “They have this ridiculous principle here that if you give her money, she’ll spend it all on herself,” Bakhshieva said. “One man’s explanation to me was, ‘What, I’m supposed to pay her to go to beauty salons so she can please other men?’”
Since it opened at the end of 2017, the shelter in Makhachkala has housed between 40 and 50 families, said Yevgenia Velichkina, the director of Warm House on the Mountain. Many of the women required protection because they became pregnant without being married. In Voronezh, where Velichkina previously ran a crisis center, she had not encountered families that forced pregnant daughters out of the house.
Larisa Alieva, a psychologist who works with Warm House on the Mountain, said her clients who are forced to leave home after an unplanned pregnancy are typically between the ages of 19 and 33. According to Alieva, many were in relationships that their families rejected, often because they disapproved of the partner’s ethnicity. When a woman is no longer able to hide her pregnancy, Alieva said, her family may abandon or even kill her, and even men who promise to stand by their partners frequently cave in to pressure from their families and leave.
Other men continue to pursue their wives even after they seek shelter. In May 2019, a man named Rustam Ilyasov broke into Warm House on the Mountain looking for his wife Maryam. One of her friends had given him the shelter’s address. While Maryam hid in one of the apartment’s rooms, Rustam took their seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter and left. Maryam had married her husband when she was 16 and tolerated years of abuse before she escaped. Following the break-in, she went back to her husband, changed her phone number, and stopped contacting the shelter’s employees.
Alieva said at least half of the women who pass through Warm House on the Mountain ultimately return to their husbands. “A person [in these situations] regresses to a childlike state. They believe with certainty that their life depends entirely on their aggressor. A woman whose husband regularly beats her does not have the resources to say, ‘You can’t treat me that way. That’s not normal,’” the psychologist said. “That’s why women sometimes take the side of the husbands who beat them and only run away when their lives are threatened.”
“Every time a woman goes back to a husband who beat her, we have a feeling of loss. It’s impossible to get used to. It’s awful,” Farida Bakhshieva added. According to the deputy director, some families in Chechnya and Ingushetia do not let children leave with their mothers, creating another incentive for the women to return to them.
“When, after rehabilitation, the women under the shelter’s protection rent an apartment together and take turns working and looking after the children, that’s success,” Bakhshieva said. To make that kind of success more likely, Warm House on the Mountain hopes to open a sewing workshop in the near future and train women to support themselves as seamstresses. The shelter has received grants from Russia’s presidential administration for three years in a row. It receives some private donations, but not many, and even those typically come from outside Dagestan.
Grozny’s Nadezhda and secret shelters
Nadezhda, or Hope, is another crisis center based in the Chechen capital of Grozny. It opened a year ago and has since served 84 women and children. The center was financed by a presidential grant that has now run out, leaving the shelter without financial support. Libkhan Bazayeva runs a Chechen nonprofit called Women for Development that controls the shelter, and she said the facility is now hanging by a thread even as women and children continue to live there.
According to Bazayeva, the organizers themselves had doubts about the shelter when it first opened, but demand for its services soon turned out to be very high. “There are situations when family life crumbles entirely unexpectedly. People can be unprepared for that kind of turn of events, and a woman can be left without food or a roof over her head.”
Nadezhda accepts women into its care even if they are from outside Chechnya or even outside Russia. One woman from Kazakhstan turned to the shelter for help after she entered an Islamic marriage with a man from Chechnya who only then told her he had another wife with whom she would be living. Bazayeva and her coworkers attempted to get financial aid from the woman’s husband but ultimately paid for her ticket back to Kazakhstan out of their own pockets. Bazayeva said extra-budgetary expenses like these are not uncommon for Nadezhda employees.
Working for a crisis center in the Northern Caucasus is hard enough, but there are also secret shelters throughout the region that face even higher risks. Svetlana Anokhina, the managing editor of the women-focused Caucasian news outlet Daptar, said there wouldn’t be enough of those hidden institutions to meet demand even if their number doubled.
“We have to understand that if a woman or a young lady in the Northern Caucasus is in a shelter, it’s not always only because her husband beat her. She may be running away from persecution in a family that wants to kill her. Here, in every tukhum — that’s an extended family, including cousins and second cousins — there’s always a cop. And usually, he’s the one who starts off the search using his professional resources and connections. That’s why there are secret apartments and shelters whose addresses can’t be found in any reference resource,” Anokhina said.
Usually, the editor explained, shelters like Nadezhda focus on pregnant women and women with children, while smaller, secret shelters serve women who are members of certain stigmatized groups. Among them are women who ran away from their families, women who are undocumented, women who have been raped or forced into sex work, women who have had an abortion, and lesbian or bisexual women who face threats to their lives. According to Anokhina, it would be “simply impossible” to house these women alongside mothers caring for a large number of children. Instead, “they arrive at secret apartments through their own people — you can’t just walk in there off the street.”
From a secret shelter, women can find ways to escape their home region if needed. Rights Initiative, a national human rights group in Russia, has facilitated several such escapes. Its director, Vanessa Kogan, said the obstacles to those operations are formidable: Every step of the woman’s journey must be carefully planned in secret, and nearby airports are out of the question because using them can give relatives time to catch up to their targets. Every plan must also be flexible: Sometimes, it can take months for a woman to find a moment when she can slip away from her family. “As a rule, though, the hardest step is to walk out of the house,” Kogan said.
Yelizaveta Alieva from Ingushetia is among the women Rights Initiative has helped leave her home. Alieva’s younger sister Maryem, whose husband regularly beat her, went missing in 2015. After Yelizaveta submitted a missing persons report, the family of Maryem’s husband, Mukharbek Yevloyev, began threatening her. Rights Initiative received a government protection order for Yelizaveta Alieva, but they soon came to regret that move: It trapped Alieva and her children in a form of house arrest, and the threats against them did not stop. Even cancelling the order and moving the family to Moscow was insufficient to keep them safe.
Ultimately, Rights Initiative helped Alieva and her children receive political asylum abroad, Kogan explained. However, at that stage, the group is dependent on nonprofits that are better equipped to provide for refugees. Kogan said her own organization’s energies are focused almost entirely on legal aid: “[We] don’t have the resources to personally accompany women and children as they build their new life.”
Shame and persistence
“People tell us that we’re putting the republic to shame because here, people are used to staying quiet about things like domestic violence, selective abortion, and pregnancy outside marriage. What we believe is that the more we bring these topics into the public discussion, the smaller our problems will become,” says Yevgenia Velichkina, the director of Warm House on the Mountain.
In Russia as a whole, debate has been raging over a State Duma bill that would re-criminalize domestic violence for alleged first-time offenders (though women’s advocates say the legislative process has left the bill toothless). Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen government, has called the bill “a problem” that would “destroy the institution of the family.” “The same thing is happening in Europe,” he said. “They don’t understand customs there, traditions, the institution of the family. That’s why they’re quietly becoming who they are now, women marrying dogs or dead people and men marrying who knows what creatures.”
Conservative politicians in other Northern Caucasian republics also believe the law would harm the family as an institution. Bulach Chankalayev, an aide to Dagestani State Duma Deputy Buvaisar Saitiev, was particularly upset by an online documentary on domestic violence in his republic. He asked, “Are we really so bad that Russian TV is, say, starting to broadcast us and tell people that family violence is prevalent in Dagestan? Are we really that bad?”
Meanwhile, shelter staff have faced public opposition and even ridicule. Velichkina and her deputy Bakhshieva went on a Dagestani talk show in December 2019, but the other participants criticized them and even laughed when they mentioned that they serve sex workers. “That upset me very much. I was unpleasantly surprised at the fact that people can be so unmerciful,” Velichkina said.
Bakhshieva added that Warm House on the Mountain has been forced to start looking for a new apartment because the shelter’s current neighbors regularly complain to their landlord, hinting that because the apartment houses noisy children and single women, it must be a brothel. Finding a new home for the shelter is difficult: Few landlords are willing to rent to it, and some boost prices because they mistake the organization for a commercial housing enterprise.
In November 2019, Agunda Bekoyeva opened a brand new movement against domestic violence in North Ossetia. The movement, Khotæ (Sisters), was a response to the murder of a Vladikavkaz woman named Regina Gagieva at the hands of her ex-husband. Bekoyeva said almost 40 women have turned to the project for help in less than three months even though information about it is scarce. However, the regional government has not followed through on the group’s offers to open a crisis center. “And that’s how it will be down the line, too, as long as this society doesn’t acknowledge that high-profile beatings and murder cases aren’t a statistical error. We have a problem. We have to recognize it,” she said.
Warm House on the Mountain and Women for Development, which runs the Nadezhda crisis center, are both open for donations. However, their websites do not have SSL certificates, and credit or debit card donations may be insecure. If you have a Russian bank account, you can use your bank’s online system to donate to the account numbers listed on each organization’s website.
Abridged English version by Hilah Kohen