Don’t walk between the bark and the tree.
“I hope to go to court with my own mother one day, but she doesn’t want to. Not yet.”
Who: Valentina Frolova
What: Lawyer at the Crisis Center for Women in St Petersburg.
Over a cup of coffee, Tany tells us about the incident where her neighbour put his hands round her neck; she was newly married, and had just moved into what was known as a ‘common house’, where several families share a kitchen and bathroom.
“He didn’t let go of my neck until he thought I was dead. But I came round and called the police. They arrived two hours later, lit their cigarettes outside before they came in, and then asked me what had happened. I had trouble speaking because my throat was so badly injured, but they said they couldn’t arrest the man until I’d got a medical certificate. They seemed to think it was a normal domestic argument. Nothing to make a fuss about.”
He didn’t let go of my neck until he thought I was dead.
Valentina listens quietly. She is only 22, but she knew before she had completed her law studies that she wanted to work with women who were victims of violence. Her own father abandoned the family when Valentina and her twin sister were three years old. Her step-father was violent towards their mother.
She found the Crisis Center for Women (CCW) on the internet. It has been offering advice and psychological treatment, and working to raise public support for gender equality and the rights of women who are the victims of violence, since 1994. It has been a constant battle with the police, the courts and other authorities.
“I hope to go to court with my own mother one day,” says Valentina, “but she doesn’t want to. Not yet.”
The biggest obstacle for a woman who is the victim of violence in Russia and who wants to change her situation is – in a way – the woman herself. She knows that her chances of getting justice in court are small. The attitude in Russia is still that violence in the home is a private matter. There is no description of violence in close relationships in Russian law. A proposed law dating from 1995 has been revised several times, but never been passed. It is just as well, in Valentina’s opinion. The most recent proposal discussed preventive work, and there was no mention of punishment, or the right to sheltered accommodation.
“And women won’t want to report acts of violence to the police unless they can guarantee their own safety and the safety of their children,” explains Valentina.
Women won’t want to report acts of violence to the police unless they can guarantee their own safety and the safety of their children.
Public support is growing, slowly but surely, for a law which states clearly that all violence in the home is a criminal offence. Most of the people we talk to believe that the level of violence is neither rising nor falling, but the offenders appear to be getting younger. This is a consequence of the collapse of the old Soviet Union. Under Perestrojka, the old social structures disappeared and there are no longer any youth centres, social activities or free sports clubs.
During the same period, the police system disintegrated. Experienced police investigators looked for other jobs, some with the Russian mafia. The agency was drained of knowledge.
Larissa Uliukina, a criminal lawyer we meet, tells us that police investigations into murders of women are usually seriously deficient.
“I would estimate that between five and ten per cent of all cases involving violence go to court. And I often win my case when I’m defending the perpetrator, because the grounds for prosecution are so weak.”
At the annual Christmas party, Larissa usually raises her glass to her colleagues and proposes an ironic toast: “To Russian police investigations!”
Most of the people we talk to believe that the level of violence is neither rising nor falling, but the offenders appear to be getting younger.
In Russia, we hear countless women’s stories about the attitudes of the police. Another of Valentina’s clients, a young woman doctor named Galina, called the police after her husband had beaten her head against the stone floor in front of witnesses. The police patrol told her: “You’re a married woman. It’s legal. We don’t do anything unless there’s a dead body.”
So she took her bruises to the police station, where the chief of police burst out: “Look how much your husband loves you!”
Valentina cannot even hazard a guess as to what will happen to Tany, who survived the attempt to strangle her. What is certain is that the legal process will take a long time. The witness who showed up was a policeman, who was able to confirm that the accused had a police record for violent crime, but that in itself does not carry much weight as evidence.
Tany tells us that it took her three attempts before she was able to register a report that the police accepted. And then only because she was able to prove that she had spent a week in hospital under observation for suspected brain damage after the attempted strangulation.
“But the doctor hadn’t written anything about the injuries on my neck. At the hospital, they were interested in how I was feeling, but not in what kind of injuries I had.”
At the hospital, they were interested in how I was feeling, but not in what kind of injuries I had.
She goes on, “I’d heard about the problems within the police force, but at the same time I didn’t want to believe it could happen to me. You never think it can happen to you. But now I believe that you are powerless unless you have friends or relatives in the police.”
The background to the attack was a conflict with the neighbour that arose after Tany and her husband had managed to buy another room in the house both couples shared. Tany believes it was motivated by envy.
Tany asked for psychological help and was referred to the Crisis Center for Women, where Valentina was appointed to represent her. Luckily, Tany’s husband had taken photographs of the injuries on her neck and throat, which provided the grounds to start a police investigation.
“I want him to go to prison, because there’s a risk he might do the same thing to someone else,” she says.
Maternal deaths: 34 deaths per l00,000 births (2008)
Number of children/woman: 1.42
Abortion legislation: Right to abortion
Law against rape within marriage: No
Violence against women in close relationships: Violence in the home is the cause of two thirds of all murders in Russia. It is estimated that 34,000 women are subjected to violence in the home each year. 60-70 per cent of these victims do not report the abuse, mainly because previous attempts to report it have failed.