Mon, Jun 15, 2015 - Page 9 News List

‘If he beats you, he loves you’: Exposing domestic violence

When one woman wrote about a beating she received from her boyfriend, it broke the taboo on the Russian capital’s culture of domestic abuse

By Amelia Gentleman  /  The Guardian, MOSCOW

Illustration: Yusha

Anna Zhavnerovich went to the police a week after she said her boyfriend beat her unconscious, determined to make sure that he was arrested and brought to justice. She was surprised by some of the questions the Moscow police officers asked her when she recounted what had happened, her face still painfully swollen and discolored.

“They asked me why I did not have any children,” she remembers, “they asked me if I was married.”

Beneath their line of questioning was the suggestion that somehow the attack was her fault.

They told her that they would investigate, but a few weeks later she received a letter informing her that the case had been dropped. Her ex-boyfriend had not been questioned and no further action was proposed. When she tried to hire a lawyer to start a private suit, she was told that the police had lost her files.

Zhavnerovich, 28, a journalist at fashionable Moscow-based online lifestyle Web site W-O-S, chose instead to write an article about what had happened to her. Its publication last month attracted much attention, highlighting an issue that for decades has been an almost taboo. Zhavnerovich was bombarded with hundreds of e-mails and Facebook posts from women who wanted to tell her that they, too, had been beaten by partners and struggled to get authorities to register a complaint.

“I think people were surprised to read that this was happening in young, fashionable Moscow circles — not something to do with alcoholics in some remote, backward village somewhere. That is why it triggered such a huge reaction from the public,” Zhavnerovich said, “judging by the responses I have had, the scale of the problem is enormous.”

The interest her account provoked chimed with a political shift in attitudes to this issue, which is finally edging toward the political mainstream.

PROSECUTING ATTACKERS

After decades of failed attempts to draft legislation that identifies domestic violence as a crime, politicians at the Moscow Duma hope to debate a new law during this session of the legislature that would make it easier for victims to prosecute their attackers, as well as introduce a series of preventative measures, such as restraining orders and behavioral therapy for offenders.

Politicians have already considered — and abandoned — more than 50 draft versions of a law on domestic violence since the early 1990s, but this time there is muted optimism from campaigners, who say a series of high-profile cases are finally bringing this hidden issue into the open, strengthening demand for improvements in the way complaints from women are handled.

The current debates over how Russia deals with domestic violence reflect changing attitudes about women, in a nation where family values remain conservative. It touches on a perplexing Russian paradox — that while the Russian government has long promoted equality in the workplace, attitudes toward women remain patriarchal. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which was considering the issue of domestic violence, expressed concern in 2010 at the “state party’s repeated emphasis on the role of women as mothers and caregivers.”

“If he beats you, he loves you,” goes a well-known Russian proverb, a wry articulation of an acceptance that being hit by your husband is simply an everyday part of human relationships. Marina Pisklakova, head of ANNA, a Moscow-based charity that has been fighting for improved support for victims of domestic violence since the 1990s, said that the violence itself is a global problem, but that Russia is unusual in having such inadequate legislation.

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