MOSCOW: Alexandra Glebova knows only too well the trauma of domestic violence in Russia after suffering years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her father.
“He would always hit me on the head,” Glebova, 26, told Agence France-Presse.
“Sometimes he hit me so hard I bounced off his hand round the whole room like a ping-pong ball.”
Now a law set to be signed by President Vladimir Putin will soften the punishment for such domestic violence from a jail term to a fine.
Already fast-tracked through parliament, the proposed law was drawn up by conservative pro-Kremlin lawmakers who argue that tough legislation on domestic abuse represented undue interference into family life.
But the change has infuriated rights groups and victims and prompted unusually heated debate in a country where violence at home is not seen as out of the ordinary.
Glebova, whose father abused her for around five years but was never reported to the police, said the proposed law had prompted her to speak out.
“With this law, they break lives,” she said.
“These are people, and the authorities should protect people. It turns out they protect some people but others not at all.”
Living with her boyfriend in Moscow, she said she still suffers from depression and has nightmares about her “tyrant” father, with whom she has ended contact.
One in five Russian women has suffered physical violence from a partner, according to a 2011 official report. Rights group ANNA estimates 7,500 women died in 2015 from domestic violence.
“If he beats you, it means he loves you,” a popular saying goes, and a recent survey by the state-run opinion polling agency found 59 percent thought such violence could be acceptable.
In Russia there is no separate law covering domestic violence where the victim is living with the attacker, unlike in many other countries, but rather it is lumped in under battery. There are also no restraining orders against abusers.
Now the new legislation would cut the punishment that first-time abusers could face from two years in jail to a fine and says they will only face criminal charges if they reoffend within a year. Even then, the onus will be on the victim to launch legal action.
Proponents of the new law, such as prominent senator Yelena Mizulina, slam Western countries for taking children into care and praises patriarchal values and corporal punishment.
She claimed the changes offer the “very good” option of community service for abusers “which won’t hit the family budget.”
Meanwhile foreign affairs committee chief Konstantin Kosachev said the West was criticising the measure with the aim “of attacking our country”. Upper house speaker Valentina Matviyenko insisted fines of up to $500 “are enough if it’s the first time and it’s just some light family squabbles.”
‘Removing a last resort’
Anna Veduta, a former spokeswoman for opposition politician Alexei Navalny, said she felt compelled by the proposed law to share her experience of domestic violence.
“I thought it would be a good moment to draw attention to this problem,” said Veduta, who now lives in Washington DC.
When she was an 18-year-old student in Moscow, her boyfriend abused her both physically and psychologically — hitting her, smashing her possessions and forcing her to carry out sexual acts, she said.
“He wouldn’t strike me in the face so you’d see something,” she said. “You’d have bruises on your body, but people don’t see them, especially in winter in Russia.”
She wrote a Facebook post about her experiences that was reposted by a news site and a popular blogger.
Yet, “most of the comments were: ‘It’s your fault’,” she said. “I just want people to get used to this simple concept: the victim is never guilty.”
She condemned the legislation for removing a woman’s “last resort” to call police and get a criminal investigation.
‘A step back’
Lawmakers who back the proposed law argue it gives an abuser a chance to reform.
But activists predict the opposite.
“This is a step back again because women find themselves without protection — and so do children,” said Irina Matviyenko, coordinator of the abused women’s helpline ANNA.
“What is happening again is a kind of impunity for abusers,”
The law fails to recognise that domestic violence consists of multiple attacks aimed at controlling the victim, Matviyenko said.
“Domestic violence will recur and get more serious.”
The head of a regional woman’s centre also said she expected “the number of dead will increase and the number of injured women”.
She requested not to be named due to a law penalising foreign-funded NGOs for “political” activities.
Asked if in 19 years she had ever seen an abuser stop after the first attack, she said: “Never”.
The best-case scenario is the woman leaves with the children, she said.
Domestic violence is most common against a female partner, but also often targets elderly parents or teenage children, she added.
She estimates that in each of the Russian regions she works with, some 30,000 families are at risk of violence.
In Russia as a whole, “this doesn’t affect 100,000 women, it’s definitely half a million. I think that’s the most modest estimate.” AFP