Agnieszka Widlaszewska examines the startling changes to legislation surrounding domestic violence in Russia.
At the beginning of 2017 Western media reported the planned changes to the Russian legislation on domestic violence. It seemed that the Russian Duma (Parliament) was trying to decriminalise violence and allow abusers to beat their spouses and children without fear of being brought to justice. While the reality is only slightly less brutal than it may seem, the new legislation is supported by over half of Russia’s population and was, in fact, proposed by female parliamentarians. A practice that the Western world condemns as a gross violation of human rights is treated as a norm of family life in Russia.
The new legislation that was passed towards the end of January changes the status of domestic violence from a legal to an administrative offence – meaning that the offence is considered less serious. The offence could be punished with a fine of up to 30,000 roubles (around 420 pounds), up to 15 days of arrest or up to 120 hours of community service. There are, however, two significant caveats. Firstly, weaker forms of punishment apply if the perpetrator is committing the crime for the first time. Secondly, the offence is administrative only if no serious harm has been done – if the injuries are not long-term and do not affect someone’s ability to work.
What was the motivation behind this controversial move? According to Ol’ga Batalina, one of the authors of the newest version of the law, the previous changes to the legislation in 2016 put the perpetrators of domestic violence into the category of people accused of violence based on political, ideological, racist, nationalistic or religious motives. This meant they could be sentenced to up to 2 years in prison, which many considered too strict a punishment for “bruises and scratches”.
The West would probably ask whether it is not better to have harsher punishments for those who physically abuse women and children. Are people in Russia not going to be outraged at such obvious violation of the rights of those most vulnerable? Well, no. Because according to a survey carried out by VTSIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center), almost 60% of the population supports the current changes and believes that they will lead to a decrease in domestic violence.
What many fail to understand is that beating in Russia is genuinely considered to be a way to maintain discipline in the family and those who get beaten are said to suffer because they deserve it. A Russian saying “Бьёт, значит любит”, which, translated literally, means “beating means love” is probably the best reflection of this type of attitude. A woman who gets beaten cannot hope to rely on the male-dominated justice system, and she may even be stigmatised among other women for trying to destroy her family’s life by putting its breadwinner behind bars for what many would say was probably a rightful punishment for some form of disobedience.
The problem reaches much deeper into Russian society. While the new legislation might make it harder for women to seek justice, what really needs to change is the society’s perception of the right model of family relations. Physical abuse should never be an answer and people need to understand that.
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