How A Systemic Lack Of Legislation Is Failing To Protect Russian Women And Girls From Domestic Violence
Activists and human rights advocates have been campaigning for a law against domestic violence in Russia for years. However, the situation remains one of the worst in Europe. In the past decade, it’s estimated that 65% of all women killed in Russia died at the hands of a partner or a relative. And more than 80% of women convicted of murder in Russian prisons had been defending themselves in situations of domestic violence.
Since the 1990s, a number of laws have been drafted. The last such bill, drawn up in 2019, was never considered by the State Duma – Russia’s lower house of parliament. Prior to 2017, the Russian Criminal Code included an article on domestic assault, but it was then amended, recategorising first-time assaults as ‘administrative offences’.
According to the latest independent survey, 75% of Russians are in favour of legislation. Opponents however, including senior public officials and representatives of the Orthodox Church, argue that such a law would permit interference in family life which is “incompatible with the institution of the family and with traditional family, moral and spiritual values”.
Organisations providing practical and psychological support for women in Russia are also thin on the ground. There are 14 based in Moscow and 25 in St. Petersburg, however most are private or religious organisations with insecure funding. In some regions, there are none.
In mid-December 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) considered a number of high-profile domestic violence cases against Russia. It issued a pilot judgement highlighting systemic problems in Russian domestic legislation and ordered the authorities to take urgent steps to rectify the situation. One of these was the shocking case of Margarita Gracheva, whose husband chopped off her hands. The police officer she had approached shortly before the crime took place had ignored her complaint.
As Margarita Gracheva’s lawyer, Valentina Frolova explains, the fact that the ECHR has passed this judgement does not necessarily mean change will follow. Russia, she explains, is the only remaining country in the Council of Europe with no law against domestic violence and one of the few not to have ratified the Istanbul Convention on combating domestic violence.
“A decision by an international body cannot of itself rectify the situation,” continues Frolova. “It is the Russian government that must take the necessary steps because while the ECHR specifically refers to actions which must be taken to protect victims, this (complex) problem will not be solved overnight. For example, Moldova and Italy have passed the relevant legislation, but complaints against them continue to be filed with the ECHR, and there are also problems with protecting victims from domestic violence in those countries. System-level work takes time and effort. You need to train the employees of government agencies, the police, the courts and social services.”
For several years, Russian activists have been running campaigns to draw attention to the problem. In 2019, a flash mob ran on social media under the hashtag #янехотелаумирать – ‘I didn’t want to die.’ People used it to relate stories of women who had died from or been victims of domestic violence.
The Khachaturyan sisters, who killed their father, whom they alleged had abused them over a period of several years, received fairly widespread public support. Their defence lawyers say that the killing was necessary self-defence, and that the existence of a system for the protection of victims of domestic violence would have prevented the tragedy.
Most recently, in October 2021, the speaker of the Federation Council Valentina Matvienko declared that a draft law on domestic violence would be put before the State Duma in the autumn session of 2021. However, this never happened, and the fight continues to put in place meaningful legal protections for women and girls in Russia.
Maria Koltsova is a Russian journalist based in Moscow who specialises in human rights