Why Russia is About to Decriminalise Wife - Beating. 28/1/2017

Published by THEECONOMIST

It fits with traditional values, lawmakers say

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SHOULD it be a crime for a husband to hit his wife? In many countries
this question no longer needs discussing. But not in Russia, where the
Duma (parliament) voted this week to decriminalise domestic violence
against family members unless it is a repeat offence or causes serious
medical damage. The change is part of a state-sponsored turn to
traditionalism during Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term. It has
exposed deep fault lines. Many Russians now embrace the liberal notion
of individual rights, but others are moving in the opposite direction.

Activists
warn that decriminalisation will legitimise abuse. “The overall message
to Russian citizens is that domestic violence isn’t a crime,” says
Andrei Sinelnikov of the Anna Centre, a violence-prevention charity.

The
debate began in 2016, when the government decriminalised battery, the
least violent form of assault on the Russian statute books. Russia is
one of three countries in Europe and Central Asia that do not have laws
specifically targeting domestic violence. Instead it is treated like
other forms of assault, ignoring the fact that spouses and children are
more vulnerable than other victims. But when it decriminalised battery
last June, the Duma decided to exempt domestic abuse, instead making it
subject to the same two-year maximum sentence as racially motivated
offences.

That pleased civil-society groups that had been pushing
for tougher rules. But the Russian Orthodox Church was furious.
Scripture and Russian tradition, the church said, regard “the reasonable
and loving use of physical punishment as an essential part of the
rights given to parents by God himself”. Meanwhile, conservative groups
worried that parents might face jail. They argued that it was wrong for
parents to face harsher punishment for hitting their child than a
neighbour would.

Under pressure from such groups, deputies have put forward a bill that makes the first instance of poboi—battery
that does not do lasting harm—an administrative violation carrying a
fine of 30,000 roubles ($502), community service or a 15-day detention.
It also returns the crime to the realm of “private prosecution”, where
the victim is responsible for collecting evidence and bringing a case.
Repeat offences would be criminal infractions, but only within a year of
the first, giving abusers a pass to beat relatives once a year.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Duma, says the bill would help
build “strong families”. The bill’s second reading on January 25th won
385 out of 387 votes. It is expected to sail through its third reading
and be signed into law by Mr Putin.

He hit me, it didn’t feel like a kiss

Anna
Zhavnerovich does not agree that tolerating domestic abuse leads to
strong families. A lifestyle journalist in Moscow, Ms Zhavnerovich had
lived with her boyfriend for several years and discussed marriage. One
night in December 2014 the conversation turned towards the possibility
of breaking up. Her boyfriend proceeded to beat her black and blue. She
managed to get him convicted after lawyers who read the account she
published online came to her aid. “People think it can’t happen to
them,” says Ms Zhavnerovich. “They hold on to an illusion of safety.”

Domestic
violence has deep cultural roots. An old Russian proverb says: “If he
beats you it means he loves you.” “Violence isn’t just a norm, it’s our
style of life,” says Alena Popova, an advocate for laws against domestic
violence. The scale of the problem is difficult to measure, but
according to Russia’s interior ministry, 40% of violent crimes happen
within the family. More than 70% of women who call the Anna Centre’s
hotline never report their cases to the police. The practice of private
prosecution, which forces victims to navigate bureaucratic obstacles,
dissuades many. “It’s the circles of hell, it goes on and on,” says
Natalia Tunikova, who tried unsuccessfully to prosecute the man she says
abused her.

Nonetheless, awareness has been growing, partly
thanks to grassroots efforts. “The idea that ‘it’s her fault’ is no
longer accepted a priori,” says Ms Zhavnerovich. (Curiously, she
supports the new law, believing that more women will come forward if
they do not think their partners will be sent to Russia’s harsh
prisons.) A social-media flashmob under the hashtag
“IAmNotAfraidToSpeak” took off in Ukraine and Russia last year, with
thousands sharing tales of abuse.

Russia’s ultra-conservatives are
not afraid to speak, either. Elena Mizulina, a senator known for
promoting laws against “gay propaganda”, has pushed the latest changes,
saying that “women are not offended when we see a man beating his wife.”
But decriminalisation fans also argue that family affairs are not the
state’s business. “The family is a delicate environment where people
should sort things out themselves,” says Maria Mamikonyan, head of the
All-Russian Parents Resistance movement, which collected thousands of
signatures supporting the measure.

In a country scarred by
communism—where the state was once all-intrusive and families had
virtually no privacy—such sensitivities are understandable. Some of the
opposition to domestic-violence laws stems from a rational fear of
allowing Russia’s corrupt police and judiciary more power over family
life. When critics charge that conservatives’ views hark back to the Domostroi,
a set of household rules popular during the reign of Ivan the Terrible,
Ms Mamikonyan objects. What they advocate is not a restoration of “the
Middle Ages”, she says, but merely a return to the values “that European
civilisation held in the 19th and 20th centuries”. To many Russian
women, that still sounds like a giant step backwards.