(*this is actually a genuine Russian saying, but we will come back to it later)
By Helena Eynon
International Women's Initiative News Writer
In February 2017, Russia’s president Vladamir Putin signed a new law that has effectively decriminalised certain acts of domestic violence against women and children. Dubbed the “slapping law,” the move has sparked an international outcry amongst women’s rights activists and human rights groups.
Domestic abuse is widely alleged to be endemic in Russia, with a huge number of cases thought to go unreported and the government already facing criticism from the United Nations over its shortcomings in ensuring the protection of women and children. The new law is being hailed as a further step backwards because it removes the element of criminality when the violence is considered moderate, and the victim is not deemed to have suffered serious physical harm. In simple terms, this means that no criminal proceedings will be brought in cases arising within the family if the victim has not suffered a serious injury; i.e. when no bones have been broken and they have not taken time off work. Therefore, an assault that breaks the skin and causes considerable bleeding, bruising, swelling and long-lasting psychological harm can now be treated as an administrative matter rather than as a criminal offence.
Prior to this amendment, such attacks were classed as battery, a criminal matter carrying a maximum prison sentence of two years. Under the new law, convicted perpetrators can receive just a fine, community service or a 15-day jail term in cases where the violence has not occurred more than once in a year. Repeat offenders may be jailed for up to three months.
The new law was passed in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, by a huge majority. The rationale behind the change is the preservation of traditional values. This is a law that is designed to reduce state interference into family life, and to protect relationships that are based on the premise of authority. However, the consequences of the change could be far wider, because the term “family” in this context really does mean the whole family, so that the new law will not only cover acts of violence committed by men against women and vice versa, but also certain cases of battery against children by their parents, as well as some assaults against the elderly and vulnerable.
The new law has been championed by Russian conservatives in a campaign that was supported by MP Yelena Mizulina, who has said that no-one should be branded a criminal for ‘a slap.’ Speaking out in defence of the amendment, Mizulina said: “In the traditional family culture in Russia, parent-child relationships are built on the authority of the parents’ power. The laws should support that family tradition.”
Russian government statistics show that around 40% of violent crime occurs within the family, with up to 36,000 women attacked by their partners each day, and around 26,000 children at the hands of their parents. Unofficial estimates suggest that violence may affect up to one in four families, with a staggering 14,000 women dying each year as a result.
Research from non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch from several countries including Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, has found that women can be deterred from reporting abuse if there is a general perception within the authorities and the public that domestic violence is acceptable, with the fear of reprisals also identified as a factor. Since the amendment was passed, reported cases of domestic abuse have reportedly doubled in the major city of Yekaterinburg, with mayor Yevgeny Roizman attributing the rise to perpetrators no longer fearing criminal charges. According to Olga Yurkova, executive director of Sisters, a Russian referral centre dealing with cases of sexual assault, women often suffer in silence. Speaking to Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, she said: "A huge number of women tolerate domestic violence but do not bring it out to the public. The decriminalisation will worsen the situation.”
“If he loves you, he will beat you” says the well-known Russian proverb. This makes no sense at all because in fact love and beating can never go together. And to the many of us who have found ourselves trapped in an unbearable situation, and who know what it means to live in fear wherever we are in the world, how likely is it that the abuse will not recur within the year? Well, unfortunately it is highly likely that it will. Beating, slapping or any other assault that is done with the intention to harm, silence or assert power and authority over another has nothing to do with love. It is simply abuse. And it seems to be an abuse that, despite coming under fire from the international community, Russia will continue to condone.