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Russia is failing in its obligations to protect women from domestic and sexual violence

Recent rulings by both the UN Committee tasked with monitoring the implementation the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) find that Russia is failing in its obligations to protect women from violence. The cases bring home the horror and extent of the domestic violence problem in Russia and the lack of government action in addressing it.

Domestic Violence in Russia: ‘A Family Matter’

Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report into Domestic Violence in Russia found serious gaps in Russia’s laws, a lack of protection orders, and inadequate police and judicial responses resulting in women facing a threat of serious physical violence with little or no protection. It also found that domestic violence in Russia is still seen as a private “family” matter and often police, courts and service providers tend to blame victims and advise women to avoid “provoking” their abusers.

Draft domestic violence laws have been discussed in Russia since the 1990s, and there has long been political will in some parts of the government apparatus, but conservative political forces have until now defeated them. A group of Russian legislators tried in 2012 to enact a law against domestic violence. However, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Commission on the Family objected even to the use of the term “violence in the family,” stating that it is a product of “the ideas of radical feminism” aimed at victimising men. The Russian Orthodox Church has had a significant influence over the Russian state in the recent 20 years – specifically, the gender and family policies of the Church and the state are very close today on many issues.

Increasing impunity: decriminalising ‘first offences’

Despite the pandemic character of domestic violence, the Russian Parliament adopted controversial legislative amendments in early 2017 that decriminalised first battery offences among family members. The provisions reduced penalties for abusers, effectively putting victims in greater danger and sending the message of impunity for perpetrators of violence in the family.

X. and Y. vs. Russia (CEDAW)

In these cases, decided by the CEDAW Committee in August 2019, the two applicants in the case were systematically abused by their ex-husbands for several years. They were repeatedly beaten (including in public places and in the presence of children) and the aggressors pursued and threatened to kill them.

Despite this, neither the police nor the courts took measures to effectively investigate. Instead, the police recommended that the women initiate prosecution proceedings themselves. This is known as a ‘private prosecution’, rather than the state taking on a public prosecution. When the applicants asked the police to initiate a criminal case (part 4 of article 20 of the Code of Criminal Procedure) they were refused.

In its decision, in addition to recommending to Russia that it prosecute the perpetrators, the CEDAW Committee recommends “reparation and comprehensive compensation” as well as “exhaustive and impartial investigation” into the structural failures to provide protection to the survivors.

Equality Now provided an amicus brief as part of this case for the Russian Consortium of Women’s NGOs which provided legal assistance to the applicants.

Victims should not have to investigate or prosecute their own cases

One of these structural failures is with respect to the state initiating proceedings. The CEDAW Committee recommends that the Russian Federation:

“adopt comprehensive legislation to prevent and address gender-based violence, including domestic violence, introduce ex officio prosecution of domestic and sexual violence and ensure that women and girls who are victims of violence have access to immediate means of redress and protection and that perpetrators are prosecuted and adequately punished.”

This is very welcome. Equality Now, in its report on laws and practices with respect to sexual violence in the region, Roadblocks to Justice: How the Law is Failing Survivors of Sexual Violence in Eurasia, highlighted that the current burden on the victim herself to bring the case against her abuser is an almost impossible task for women without resources or legal expertise, funds, and while operating in a context of threats and violence. This must change so the signal is sent that such crimes are unacceptable to society and that women have better access to justice for the violence done to them.

Volodina v. Russia (ECHR)

Valeriya Igorevna Volodina was frequently beaten and physically abused by her boyfriend, risked a miscarriage from a severe physical attack and underwent a medically-induced abortion, had her movements secretly GPS-tracked by her former partner and survived several attempts on her life by him, including by him draining the brake fluid from her car. Even as she tried to hide from him, he kept tracking her down and beating and threatening her further. She reported him to the police on several occasions, but they refused each time to open criminal proceedings against him, claiming that his actions had not constituted a criminal offence.

In the Volodina case (Volodina v. Russia, app. no. 41261/17, 9 July 2019), the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian Federation was in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights, citing the State’s failure to investigate the ill-treatment of Valeriya Volodina and to take effective measures against the perpetrator or to ensure his punishment.

In this landmark ruling, the Court ruled that:

“the continued failure [of the Russian Federation] to adopt legislation to combat domestic violence and the absence of any form of restraining or protection orders clearly demonstrate that the authorities’ actions…were not a simple failure or delay in dealing with the violence against the applicant, but flowed from their reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness and extent of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women.”

Increasing access to justice for victims of domestic violence in Russia

The latest rulings by the ECHR and the CEDAW Committee bring home the horror and extent of the domestic violence problem in Russia and the lack of government action in addressing it.

More than 800,000 people have now signed the petition calling for the adoption of a domestic violence law in Russia and a draft is finally being discussed. It includes important provisions for prevention and response to domestic violence, assistance and protection of survivors and rehabilitation of perpetrators.

However, the draft should be strengthened further to ensure among other things that:

  • all forms of intimate partner violence are covered;
  • gender-based violence and sexual violence are properly defined in compliance with the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention);
  • provisions which seek to protect the unity of the family do not override the rights of a victim of domestic violence to safety and protection from harm.

The introduction and implementation of an effective law on domestic violence is a critical and urgently needed step and welcome progress by the Russian Federation. The draft should now be discussed, strengthened and passed in consultation with women’s groups without delay. The lives of the women of Russia depend upon it.