Russian Affliction: Law Decriminalizing Domestic Violence

Morgan Sheehy, staff writer

Envision a society where domestic violence is only acknowledged as a crime if the victim’s kidney is lacerated, arm is broken, or brain is severely concussed. Our communities and laws make this difficult to imagine, but this has become a reality for millions of people.

Russia has recently passed a bill that  decriminalizes domestic violence in the home. An abusive partner’s only punishment for inflicting a swollen eye, welts and cut, and the mental trauma that comes with being abused by a loved one is a night in jail, a couple hours of community service, or a small fine.

Currently, domestic abuse fits into the crime category, earning the offender a total of two years in prison. Under the new legislation, if it is a civil offense, not criminal, abusers would be released with a punishment equivalent to that of a smack on the hand: a fine of $500 or 15 days of community service. According to Yulia Gorbunova, a Moscow-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, domestic abuse would only fall under regular assault laws if the victim is severely harmed or hospitalized. A case such as this would lead to criminal charges such as imprisonment.

The bill was authored and introduced by two women: legislators Olga Mizulina and Elena Batalina. “[Women] don’t take offense when they see a man beat his wife. A man beating his wife is less offensive than when a woman humiliates a man,” said Mizulina in a live TV appearance. They believe that this bill will ultimately protect Russian families, making them stronger than ever before. People that supported the bill also argued that the government should not be involved in people’s family life and personal affairs.

The Duma, Russia’s lower house in parliament, consists of four hundred and fourteen of six hundred and sixteen members. Its members passed this legislation by an overwhelming majority: 308 to 3. The Federal Council, the upper chamber in parliament, passed the bill as well. It went on to President Vladimir Putin’s desk for signature, and was enacted on February 17, 2017.

As claimed by Russia’s official statistics, domestic violence accounts for 40% of all violent crimes in the country. In reality, this number is much higher. Human Rights Watch said that 14,000 women die annually from the injuries inflicted by their significant other. That is nearly 40 women per day. Women refrain from reporting domestic violence accounts because of the social stigma surrounding the situation, and cannot trust local responders to help. The police do not take calls of domestic violence seriously: “They say, ‘call us when he breaks your legs,’” recalled Gorbunova.

Helping to prevent domestic violence has become almost impossible now that this bill has been passed. Vital statistics will be skewed because more and more people will fear reporting abuse. Even politicians are less likely to speak up due to the majority’s approval. “It is clear that lawmakers recognized violence as a norm of family life,” Svetlana Aivazova, a Russian gender studies expert, told The New York Times. Russia already lacks safe places and resources for victims to flee to, and now victims have been stripped of their only legal security.

Author’s note: This article is based off of interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch