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Ignored epidemic: violence against women in Russia

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — It is under-recognized and under-reported. It is also one of the most significant epidemics in the Russian Federation today. It is gender violence, manifested essentially as violence against women. A recent report by Amnesty International, “Russian Federation: Nowhere to Turn to: Violence against women in the family,” calls renewed attention to the phenomenon and to the urgent need to adopt more effective policies for combating it.

The statistics are frightening. It is estimated that each hour one woman in the Russian Federation dies at the hand of a relative, her partner or a former partner. Violence against the family occurs in all 89 regions of the Russian Federation, affecting all ethnic backgrounds and social spheres.

According to Natalia Abubikirova, executive director of the Russian Association of Crisis Centers, “The number of women dying every year at the hands of their husbands and partners in the Russian Federation is roughly equal to the number of all Soviet soldiers who died in the 10-year-long war in Afghanistan.”

Worldwide, violence is as common a cause of death and disability among women of reproductive age as cancer is, and it is a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria put together. No wonder public health experts consider violence against women a public health issue.

Various cultural, economic and social factors, including shame and fear of retaliation, contribute to women’s reluctance to denounce these acts. In Russia, as in other countries, domestic violence is not only widespread but also considered a private matter, which makes it very difficult for women to obtain an appropriate police response.

Nicola Duckworth, Europe and Central Asia Program Director at Amnesty International, states in the Amnesty report: “Violence against women in the family is not a private matter and there is no justification for it. It is a human-rights abuse that states are obliged to act against under international law.”

According to studies carried out by the Council for Women of Moscow State University, 70 percent of women interviewed in a survey said they had been subjected to some form of violence (psychological, sexual, physical or economic) by their husband. Ninety percent of the respondents said they had either witnessed scenes of psychological violence between their parents, or had experienced such violence in their current marriage.

The experience of violence makes women more susceptible to a variety of health problems such as depression, suicide, and alcohol and drug abuse. Sexual violence increases women’s risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS (because of forced sexual relations or the difficulty in persuading men to use condoms). It also increases the number of unplanned pregnancies, and may lead to various gynecological problems such as chronic pelvic pain and painful intercourse.

Although there are shelters, hotlines and crisis centers for female victims of violence in some regions and cities, an adequate systematic approach to the problem does not yet exist in the Russian Federation. Even Moscow, the capital city, doesn’t have such shelters.

The World Organization Against Torture has expressed concern over the high levels of violence against women in Russia. That organization also indicated that while Russia has a duty under international law to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish all forms of violence against women, this obligation has not yet been fulfilled.

It is necessary to enact and enforce legislation that criminalizes all forms of violence against women, including marital rape. At the same time, it is important to protect from intimidation and reprisal not only the victims of violence but also witnesses and other people during investigations and prosecution.

The government should raise public awareness of the problem and ensure that women’s needs are addressed and that women are protected. For too long violence against women in the Russian Federation has been ignored. It is time to air it and deal with it effectively.