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Published: Saturday, 10/12/2002

No humor in domestic violence

“My husband is threatening to kill me,” a woman tells a cop at a Russian police precinct. “Why don't you call on us when he does,” responds the cop.

It would be funny if it wasn't so true, a bitter epitaph for the 14,000-plus women who die at the hands of a husband or live-in boyfriend each year in Russia. This is almost 10 times more than in the United States, which is about twice as populous as Russia.

Some “experts” with links to authorities tend to explain it away as a multi-faceted problem linked partly to Russian household tradition and partly to heavy drinking by Russian men, which is further aggravated by economic turmoil.

While there is truth to all of the above, the most immediate and practical factors are often being left out. Those are the well-known (in Russia) fact that Russian police simply do not bother with domestic violence calls, that domestic violence charges are very hard to press, and that domestic violence cases are almost impossible to win.

The joke at the beginning of this column is quite popular with Russian women, I am told.

Marina Parker, formerly Pisklakova, a leading Russian human rights activist who started a hotline for domestic violence victims and founded Russia's first women's crisis center in the early 1990s, says the joke is not far from the truth.

The term “domestic violence” has not been part of the Russian criminal code, not even of its updated version of 2002. Women can only press charges under a broad criminal code provision for victims who sustained “heavy physical injury.”

But even if they have been maimed or disfigured by their “significant other” - and brave enough to openly challenge him in court - Russia's women generally stand little chance of winning the case. All the defendant has to do to get off the hook completely or get a slap on the hand is show “provocation” by the woman such as anything more than an evil look.

Moreover, until recently, Russian women had not heard - and many of them still haven't - of such things as early intervention programs, caseworkers, and women's shelters. So there was nowhere - and in most cases still is nowhere - a woman can go to hide from the violence or a death threat she faces at home.

Ms. Parker, who now lives in Los Angeles, is the first to admit that Russia's network of 60 women's crisis centers, which she helped start, is just a beginning - a drop in the ocean.

In the absence of enforceable domestic violence laws, the centers' activists have been fighting an uphill battle against domestic violence in Russia. They push local cops to respond to calls on domestic violence, provide shelter at least to some of the abused women, encouraging the braver ones to press charges, and - in very rare cases - even help them win those cases.

To involve the Russian police, activists cite an obscure 1997 government decree (forced by bad publicity rather than by commitment to change the situation) that encourages police to respond to calls on domestic violence.

Ms. Parker says the tactic often works in the jurisdictions where the crisis centers are active, but unfortunately these are few and far between. As to prosecuting the cases, the “provocation” clause and the provision that only the victim of spousal violence can press charges make it hard to initiate and try domestic violence cases, she says.

Unless the criminal code is amended to include provisions for starting and prosecuting domestic violence cases much as it is done in the United States, little will change for the abused women in Russia.



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