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COVID-19 Conversations: Russia is Failing to Protect Victims of Domestic Violence

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COVID-19 is exposing and exacerbating gender inequalities around the world. Each week, we’ll be sharing insights from Equality Now experts about how women’s and girls’ lives are being affected by the pandemic and what can be done to address these challenges. 

This week, Equality Now’s Russia and Caucasus Consultant, Janette Akhilgova explains how the Russian government is failing to protect victims of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There has been a sharp rise in domestic violence globally since the introduction of quarantine measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. Why is the situation in Russia particularly troubling?

In 2017, the Russian Parliament controversially decriminalized various domestic violence offenses, removing legal protections for victims and allowing perpetrators of abuse within the family to act with impunity. Now COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are trapping women at home with their aggressors, who are able to inflict harm without facing retribution from the state.

Prior to the pandemic, domestic violence was already a major problem in Russia, where 40% of violent crimes occur within families, between 60 to 70% of women do not report incidents of domestic violence, and thousands of women are murdered annually by their husbands.

Alongside serious gaps in the law, inadequate police and judicial responses leave women with little or no protection or access to justice. Domestic violence is often viewed as a private “family” matter, with police and courts commonly blaming victims and advising women to avoid “provoking” their abusers.

How is the pandemic making things harder for those at risk of domestic violence?

A new system of digital passports has been introduced to limit the spread of the virus by restricting people’s movement. Those found to be contravening lockdown measures can be fined or face other punishments but no exemption has been specified for women escaping domestic violence. Nor has the Russian government addressed other ways in which coronavirus public health measures have created new opportunities for abusers to terrorize their victims.

Now Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs has reported there has been a fall in recorded domestic violence incidents. This is cause for further concern as the drop is likely due to victims being too scared to ask for help or are unable to find a safe way to do so.

What does the Russian government need to do to address the country’s shadow pandemic of domestic violence?

Russian authorities need to introduce emergency measures incorporating a holistic, victim-centered approach with comprehensive referral systems and multi-sectoral coordination between institutions and sectors. Victims should not be punished for breaking isolation rules, and women and children fleeing domestic violence must be provided with access to safe and suitable accommodation along with medical, psychological, and legal assistance.

There have been some positive steps. The Government Commission, headed by the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, has made several statements about disseminating information on services and NGOs that can assist victims of domestic violence, and the need to set up crisis centers for those requiring help.

However, if a comprehensive domestic violence law had been in place prior to the COVID-19 crisis, there would already be an effective system in place ready to respond to the surge in attacks. A new Domestic Violence law was being considered but last week the government announced this was being postponed until after the pandemic. Lawmakers need to expedite deliberations about legislation to recriminalize domestic violence as a matter of urgency.

To learn more about Equality Now’s work in protecting women’s rights in Russia and across the world, check out some of our current campaigns

COVID-19 is an unfolding crisis that is harming women and girls in various ways. Here are some issues we are following:

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