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Russia's domestic violence problem Why lawmakers are calling for urgent measures to address the dangers many women face at home during coronavirus quarantine

Source: Meduza
Mikhail Mettsel / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On April 21, three lawmakers behind a bill that would recriminalize domestic violence in Russia sent a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, asking her to take additional measures to protect victims of abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic. A group of nine NGOs working to help domestic violence victims in Russia previously made a similar appeal to the government and regional leaders. Both the lawmakers and the human rights activists underscore that the level of domestic violence has surged worldwide because of coronavirus lockdown measures — and Russia is no exception. Unfortunately, the authorities appear to be in no hurry to respond to these warnings.

Is the global level of domestic violence really going up?

Reports about a potential increase in domestic violence due to quarantine measures have been circulating since the lockdowns began. The UN special rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Simonovic, even issued a warning to the United Nations in Geneva on March 27.

“As the experience of non-profit organizations shows, during a long stay together at home, for example, during the New Year and May holidays, family violence picks up,” explains Sofya Rusova, press secretary for the Consortium of Women’s NGOs. “[Now there is] additional complexity: during the period of the victim’s mandatory isolation, it will be more difficult to report violence, since the aggressor is in the very same home.”

Women experiencing violence during quarantine are also more likely to write to an NGO for help than pick up the phone, since this is less noticeable to those around them, explained Anna Rivina, the director of the advocacy group “” (No to Violence), in an interview with The Village.

Reports about a spike in domestic violence in connection with self-isolation orders have already emerged in France. In the 11 days after the introduction of self-isolation requirements, the number of complaints to the police about domestic violence jumped by about a third. According to UN data, the number of calls to helplines have doubled in Lebanon and Malaysia since the start of the pandemic — in China, they have tripled (in comparison with the same period last year). The UN has already made repeated calls to protect victims of domestic violence during quarantine.

In Russia, there are no official statistics about domestic violence, but a number of NGOs are reporting on what’s becoming an alarming situation. Between mid-March and early April, Moscow’s Kitezh Women’s Crisis Center saw a 10–15 percent increase in the number of appeals, while the number of calls to the nationwide helpline for women — run by the women’s rights group “Center ANNA” — increased 24 percent between February and March this year (March saw 2,537 calls versus 2,050 calls in February). The Krasnoyarsk-based crisis center “Verba,” the NGO “Territoriya Sem’i” (Family Territory) in Perm and the advocacy organization “Zhensky Yurist” (Women’s Lawyer) all noticed a growth in calls, as well. 

How can Russia protect victims?

Along with human rights activists, the lawmakers calling for the government to act offered a list of specific measures. According to RBC, this includes calls to exempt domestic violence victims from liability for violating lockdown restrictions, as well as the following actions:

  • Providing a sufficient number of crisis shelters for victims of domestic violence
  • Compiling a register of vacancies that could accommodate victims (including hotel rooms)
  • Requiring law enforcement to respond immediately to domestic violence reports
  • Developing a special system for asking for help and promoting it on government websites or on television
  • Establishing a coordination center to help victims receive medical, legal, and psychological help

Many countries have already taken urgent measures to protect victims of domestic violence. In France, for example, the authorities have allocated 1.1 million euros ($1.2 million) to support NGOs that help victims, and are planning to cover the cost of up to 20,000 nights in hotel rooms, to allow victims to escape from their abusers.

To mitigate the problem of victims being unable to report violence because they are stuck in the same home as their abusers, France has also organized 20 emergency aid points in regular stores and has adopted the code word “mask 19.” This is an initiative that recently began in Spain and quickly gained popularity in many countries. The code word allows victims to communicate to pharmacy workers that they are experiencing domestic violence, but are afraid to call the police. Victims can now use “mask 19” in any pharmacy in France, in order to ask for help.

Russia has yet to take any steps to protect people stuck in isolation with an aggressive family member. On April 16, the speaker of Russia’s Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, said that she does not think there has been “some kind of surge in domestic violence.” “On the contrary, families are surviving this difficult period together, this information needs to be verified,” she argued.

Matviyenko also said that the consideration of the bill on domestic violence has been put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic and will resume “when the circumstances allow it.”

Text by Natasha Fedorenko

Translation by Eilish Hart

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