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Domestic violence surge Here’s how Russia’s authorities responded to rising domestic abuse during the coronavirus lockdown

Source: Meduza
Sergey Konkov / TASS / Sipa USA / Vida Press

During the coronavirus lockdown, countries around the world recorded increases in domestic violence — and Russia was no exception. To document the domestic violence situation in the country during quarantine, a group of seven nonprofit organizations began tracking what was going on, the measures being taken, and the response from government agencies. Meduza summarizes the findings of their joint report, compiled by lawyers Olga Karacehva and Svetlana Gromova from the rights organization “Zona Prava.”

Rising domestic violence

At the beginning of April, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated that under the strict isolation of the coronavirus lockdown many women were facing violence “where they should feel safest: in their own homes.” In his words, a sharp surge in domestic violence was taking place in nearly every country.

According to domestic non-profit organizations, Russia was no exception. The Consortium of Women’s NGOs reported that in May 2020 the number of calls for help from women in Russia’s Central Federal District, which includes Moscow, doubled in comparison to the monthly average.

The help center “Sestry” (Sisters), which offers crisis consultation by phone or via email, also recorded twice the number of appeals in April and May 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. The women’s mutual assistance network “Ty Ne Odna” (You’re not alone) reported 1,352 calls for help in April 2020 and 2,038 in May. Previously, the average number of calls per month was between 500 and 700. 

In April and May, the “ANNA” center’s all-Russian hotline for domestic violence victims couldn’t cope with the rapidly growing number of incoming calls, despite the fact that their operators were working from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (only 20 percent of the women who called received a full consultation). On June 2, the hotline transitioned to working 24/7. 

Russia’s Human Rights Commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova, reported similar information in an interview with RIA Novosti on May 5. Based on reports from NGOs and journalists, she stated that since April 10, 2020, the number of reported cases of domestic violence had gone up 2.5 times (from 6,054 in March 2020 to 13,000 in April).

Meanwhile, official statistics from law enforcement tell a completely different story: apparently the number of registered incidents of domestic abuse in April 2020 decreased 9 percent compared to that same month last year.

How quarantine made things worse

Self-isolation orders made it harder for victims of domestic victims to seek help: calling the police, finding a shelter, and even simply leaving the house all became more difficult.

As of March 27, the Interior Ministry suspended in-person meetings with members of the public and recommended contacting the police through a special service on their official website. The courts also changed their work regime during the self-isolation period. The majority of cases were postponed, while some hearings were held remotely. Appeals to the court could only be made electronically or by mail.

Many cases involving divorce, custody, and domestic violence were frozen — according to the report, this had the potential to make already difficult family situations worse. NGO workers also noted that in some cases where domestic violence victims tried to call the police, their attempts were unsuccessful because law-enforcement officers were too busy monitoring compliance with quarantine measures.

The ANNA center emphasized that because of the lack of clear quarantine regulations many people dealing with domestic violence were afraid to leave their homes, because they didn’t want to break the rules. In several cases aggressors even threatened women with calling the police over their intentions to go out and violate quarantine. It took until May 27 for the Interior Ministry to announce that people who violated quarantine in emergency situations, including domestic violence incidents, wouldn’t be held accountable.

The self-isolation regime also created problems when it came to evacuating victims from their homes. For example, because of quarantine restrictions, several crisis centers closed temporarily, and tax drivers reported being unable to quickly obtain permits for traveling around the region. The report’s authors cite the Rostov Region as an example: the region has no special crisis center for victims of domestic abuse, and it was impossible to rent alternative housing to accommodate them because real estate agencies weren’t working.

The official reaction

At the end of March, nine Russian NGOs working with domestic violence victims sent a letter to the federal government, as well as all of the regional governments, asking them to take measures to protect victims during the coronavirus lockdown. 

In response, the government’s commission for crime prevention, which is led by the Interior Ministry, issued a document with a section devoted to preventing family crime. It recommended initiating criminal cases for repeated battery without a statement from the victims, collecting additional statistics on domestic violence, speeding up the procedure for forensic examinations of bodily harm, informing Russian citizens about crisis centers and hotlines for domestic violence victims, as well as organizing shelters for victims. The report’s authors note that this document was adopted taking into account a possible growth in domestic violence during the quarantine period, but it’s only an advisory.

On May 22, St. Petersburg’s public services portal published general information on domestic violence, recommendations for victims, as well as contact information for organizations that help people dealing with domestic abuse. The website listed the Women’s Crisis Center, the advocacy group (No to violence), the ANNA center, as well as a number of local emergency medical facilities. In mid-June, the federal public services portal published information about how to act during incidents of domestic violence, but didn’t include any contact information for shelters or crisis centers.

At the regional level, only 22 of Russia’s 85 federal subjects reacted to the open letter from the NGOs. The Arkhangelsk Region refused to review it all together. Three other regions — the republics of Karelia, Mari El, and Tatarstan — forwarded the open letter to the local authorities for consideration, but didn’t issue a response.

Of the remaining regions, 18 reported that they were working to protect domestic violence victims in some way or another: several regions had shelters or hotlines for victims, while others posted information about social services at police stations. The St. Petersburg Human Rights Commissioner, Alexander Shishlov, added that due to the city’s strict self-isolation regime, state shelters for domestic violence victims were closed, but four hotels offered more than 20 rooms to accommodate those in need.

The report concludes that the Russian authorities have begun to recognize the problem of domestic violence in general and its possible aggravation due to the strict coronavirus lockdown. However, due to a lack of specialized legislation, they were unable to provide truly effective protection for victims throughout the country. 

Summary by Natasha Fedorenko

Translation by Eilish Hart

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