Writing in the Moscow Times Dr. Cesar Chelala, an international public health consultant and writer on human rights issues, exposes the horrifyingly bleak outlook for women in Russia:
Along with an avalanche of presents and office parties with endless rounds of toasts, International Women’s Day has also served as a catalyst for public discussion of women’s issues in the country. The problem of domestic violence, however, is unlikely to have much, if any place in the discussion. While the reticence to discuss it on a day meant to be a celebration is, perhaps, understandable, the degree to which the problem goes under-recognized and under-reported year round in the country is not.
Following the appearance of some frank discussion of the problem of violence against women in the 1990s, the topic has all but disappeared again. Amnesty International, in a 2005 report titled “Nowhere to turn to. Violence against women in the family,” called for renewed attention and pointed to the urgent need to adopt more effective policies for addressing the issue.
The numbers are frightening. Each year, more than 14,000 women are killed in acts of domestic violence, meaning that more than one woman dies in Russia at the hands of a relative, partner or former partner every hour. It is a crime common to all of the country’s regions and against women of all social classes and ethnic backgrounds.
Natalya Abubikirova, executive director of the Russian Association of Crisis Centers, drew a dramatic parallel to capture the scope of the problem: “The number of women dying every year at the hands of their husbands and partners in the Russian Federation is roughly equal to the total number of Soviet soldiers killed in the 10-year war in Afghanistan.”
According to a World Health Organization report on domestic violence, published in 2005, violence on the part of intimate partners is the most common physical threat women face worldwide. Globally, violence is as common a cause of death and disability for women of reproductive age as cancer. It is a greater threat to women’s health than traffic accidents and malaria put together. Although the ethical question is the most important element here, it is clear that domestic violence is also a serious public health issue.
Part of the silence associated with violence against women comes from women themselves. Cultural, economic, social and psychological factors, including shame and fear of retaliation, contribute to women’s reluctance to denounce these acts. In Russia, as in many other places, domestic violence is considered by many to be a strictly private matter. This makes it difficult to stir the government to action, including puttting pressure on law enforcement agencies to be more active in policing.
This extends to the courts, where women have little hope of gaining justice or protection. The Amnesty International report focused on this part of the problem, pointing out that violence of this type represents abuse of the victim’s human rights and that international law requires states to act to prevent these crimes.
In a study conducted by the Council for Women at Moscow State University, 70 percent of those women surveyed said they had been subjected to some form of violence — psychological, sexual, physical or economic — by their husbands. Ninety percent of respondents said they had either witnessed scenes of physical violence between their parents when they were children or had experienced this kind of violence in their own marriage.
As a public health issue, the exposure to this violence makes women more susceptible to depression, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. Sexual assault by spouses and partners increases a woman’s risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, and the number of unplanned pregnancies, and can cause serious gynecological problems, such as chronic pelvic pain.
It is clear that more has to be done to combat this epidemic of violence against women. Public attitudes about the problem have to change. Although there are some shelters, hotlines and crisis centers for female victims of violence in a number of cities, nothing close to an adequate, systematic approach to the problem exists.
At the legislative level, laws have to be enacted and enforced that criminalize all forms of violence against women, including marital rape. And not only victims, but also witnesses have to be protected against intimidation and further violence in the course of prosecuting these offenses.
The type of public education program that will be necessary to raise awareness about the problem, the kind of facilities necessary to provide real help to its victims and the legal protection that has to be put in place to stop domestic violence all depend on effective government action. Some sign of a commitment to action on the issue would be a fitting gift from the government to the country’s women on their day.