Russian women confront sexist violence

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — The typical Russian murder: the door of a Jeep Grand Cherokee swings open, cartridge-cases from an assault rifle spray onto the pavement, and a strongly built, crew-cut young man in a strawberry-coloured jacket slumps in a doorway?

The reality is less cinematic. For a start, the victim in roughly half of all Russian murders is a woman. The typical setting is the home, and the killer is usually the woman's husband or partner.

Figures released by government agencies during June put the number of women who died in Russia last year as a result of domestic violence at some 15,000. In this war within Russia's apartment blocks, waged against half the country's population, the death toll each year is many times the number of Russian soldiers that have been killed in Chechnya.

The Russian State Committee on Statistics reported an 11.5% increase in recorded crimes against women during 1993. Apart from the murders, 56,400 cases of serious injury were registered. But the real number of ruthlessly battered women is clearly far higher than this; the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda early this year estimated that only 7% of domestic violence victims file complaints with the police.

The number of cases of rape in recent years can only be guessed at. Official figures cite an increase in reported rapes from 10,900 in 1987 to more than 14,000 in 1994. But Tatyana Zabelina, a sociologist at the Institute of Youth, thinks this may represent as few as one in 50 of the rapes that actually occur.

The reasons no more than a small proportion of rapes are reported would be depressingly familiar to women's movement activists in the West. With reason, rape victims often see attempting to lodge a complaint as pointless, and as exposing them to further degrading treatment.

Police routinely try to dissuade rape victims from bringing charges, stressing the difficulty of obtaining a conviction. Where police take such a complaint seriously, they often adopt an inquisitorial attitude, alleging "incitement" and questioning victims irrelevantly on their sex lives.

But unless rape victims insist on a complaint being filed, they are often denied medical care, since hospital staff demand to see a police certificate before providing treatment. Even where complaints are filed and charges pressed, rapists frequently evade justice. Fearing revenge attacks, rape victims often disavow their earlier testimony. Witnesses too are liable to be intimidated.

Murder and rape are at least prohibited by law, but large holes remain in Russian legislation covering the broader phenomenon of violence against women. "In our laws under the Soviets, there was not even one word about domestic violence", Zabelina observed in a recent interview with the English-language Moscow Tribune. Cases of wife beating or child abuse were recorded as "hooliganism", or dismissed as the actions of maniacs.

Today, domestic assault and battery still generally goes unpunished, regarded by law enforcement authorities as a family affair, or worse, as a form of sport.

"This problem of all forms of violence against women has always existed in our country", Zabelina stated in her interview. "And during the last few years it's become more brutal."

Sociologists link the increasing spread and gravity of crimes against women to the rising stresses of lives that now include the threat of unemployment, and to the growing national catastrophe of alcohol abuse. Another, increasingly significant, factor is homelessness; the women and children most at risk of sexual attacks include the growing number living in basements and railway stations.

If materially underprivileged women suffer a disproportionate share of the violence, women from other social categories are far from being spared. According to Zabelina, wives of the wealthy "new Russians" are another much-abused group.

"Their husbands can be very brutal", Zabelina told the Moscow Tribune. "In their youth they were very poor ... Their wives remember that they were hungry students or shop assistants, and they are ashamed. They want everybody to respect them, but their wives cannot respect them in the way they want. They return drunk from lunches and parties and take out their frustrations on their wives."

The issue of violence against women, almost never covered by the Soviet mass media, is now gradually coming to be addressed in the Russian press. Meanwhile, women's groups are launching self-help measures.

Moscow's Crisis Centre for Women was established in 1993, and nearly a dozen such centres now operate in other cities of Russia. In March 1994 a Sexual Assault Recovery Centre was established in Moscow, with Zabelina as its director. This centre runs a telephone hot-line known as "Sisters", which in its first year received more than 2000 calls. During June, activists in the Moscow women's movement published a 100-page handbook entitled "How to Start and Manage a Women's Crisis Centre".

Moscow's first women's shelter was established early this year as well, after the city government responded to a three-year campaign by providing welfare activists with a near-derelict building. Western-style legislation on domestic violence is also being drawn up for submission to the Russian parliament.

Although these initiatives are modest, they are helping to show that there is nothing eternal or predestined about the oppression which Russia's women suffer. Despite the many burdens women bear, they are capable of organising in their self-defence.

For that matter, Russian men are not necessarily indifferent to violence against women. The newspaper Rabochaya Tribuna last year described how thousands of steelworkers in the industrial centre of Magnitogorsk in the Urals took part in patrols aimed at stopping a sexual psychopath who was terrorising the city's women. Within a month, one of the patrols had caught the offender.

Rabochaya Tribuna also noted that residents in the Primorskoye district of St Petersburg had organised a popular militia to patrol the streets, partly in order to thwart kerb-crawling men who were seizing women and forcing them into cars. Intervention by these patrols saved several dozen women from being abducted.

Developing a consciousness among men that violence against women is unacceptable, and creating the social solidarity needed to curb this behaviour, are daunting tasks. But progress can still be made. Even in the desperate conditions of Russia, women's rights activists and their supporters have made some promising beginnings.

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