Never touch a woman, not even with a rose petal.
“Violence is about control. It’s the loss of control that triggers violence.”
Who: Alexander Gogolkin
What: Leads M21, which works both for greater gender equality, and with the treatment of violent men.
“We believe that the traditional Russian patriarchy has to change,” he continues, and goes on to describe in a deep base voice what is needed: a new law, better social services, and training for the police force in how to deal with violence against women.
In front of him sit researchers, doctors, judges. And a row of men in uniform wearing unfathomable expressions, fingering their mobile phones; men who are identified by everyone we meet as the biggest culprits in the work to prevent violence against women: the Russian police.
We are given our own meeting with Alexander, in his office. He is an ex-officer in the Russian navy, who holds a degree in philosophy and is now a senior municipal official in one of St Petersburg’s city districts. A picture of Putin hangs on the wall.
“We believe it is time for a change,” Alexander starts again, “and anyone who thinks that only the helpless need help, is afraid.”
We believe it is time for a change.
By “we” he means the M21 organisation, Men in the 21st century. M21 is working with the Swedish organisation Men for Equality in a three-year project which is, among other things, trying to build up public opinion in Russia in favour of a new law similar to the one in Sweden on the violation of a woman’s integrity. Men for Equality is, in turn, a member of the global alliance for men’s organised work for gender equality, MenEngage.
Alexander’s interest in bringing about change began with an assignment for the government agency which takes children into care. He saw that violence was present in nine out of ten families.
“And the children learn from that. Most of them will themselves use violence as adults. I know a 14-year-old boy who beat his six-year-old sister with a belt to make her clean his room! Violence is about control. It’s the loss of control which triggers violence.”
The situation for everyone who wants to combat men’s violence against women feels impossibly difficult in Russia for a number of reasons. There are, however, men who are trying. Five young male psychologists who are members of M21 have been treating violent men on a small scale for the last two years.
Andrei Kolpakov takes his mobile phone, which rings two to three times a day, out of his pocket.
“Our typical caller is a woman,” he says. “She’s been given the number by a women’s shelter and she asks us: how can I get my husband to go for treatment?”
Our typical caller is a woman. She’s been given the number by a women’s shelter and she asks us: how can I get my husband to go for treatment?
Andrei and his colleagues meet about 30 men a year for at least one session where they discuss their violent behaviour. The treatment is voluntary. Like other people we meet, Andrei and his colleagues describe the police as a major obstacle in the fight against violence in close relationships.
“The police don’t know what violence is, unless it’s a punch in the face. We know they often say “I know how you feel” to the man who’s hit someone.”
The picture is not consistent. Andrei also says that they have had a good reception from the chiefs of police, who have listened to the seminars held by M21 politely and with interest.
Larissa Korneva, who spent three years collaborating with the district police through an organisation called Alexandra, has made similar observations.
“The problem is not simply that the police don’t want to investigate men’s violence against women in the home,” she says, “it’s that they don’t actually know how to go about it. But they can learn.”
The problem is not simply that the police don’t want to investigate men’s violence against women in the home. It’s that they don’t actually know how to go about it. But they can learn.
During a period of three years, the police sent the abused women from the district to Larissa, and at the same time opened a police investigation. The experiment continued until 2004, and a specialist unit for the local police force’s work with violence in the home was set up. The local police even had figures showing that the number of cases of serious violence had declined.
”But then the city’s police chiefs said no.”
The project was closed down. Larissa and her colleagues also discovered that violence in close relationships was no longer high on the agenda of the international aid organisations. The fight against AIDS and drugs are currently more pressing issues. One argument is that it is wrong to use aid money to support a social activity that ought to be the responsibility of society. The progress came to a halt. St Petersburg has almost five million inhabitants and an estimated 40 beds for abused women and their children.
“We have always had volunteers working here, but now we’re all volunteers,” says Larissa, who hasn’t been paid for four months.
The seminar in St Petersburg ends with a reception at a hotel. The police who participated in the seminar are not present, and decline to be interviewed. It would be interesting to know what they thought of the international speakers’ talk of electronic tagging of violent men, of the legislation on violation of a women’s integrity, and of the need for legislation and a national strategy.
Violence costs. That’s an argument everyone understands.
What is needed is political will from the very top, if the measures are to become a reality. Alexander Gogolin is cautiously optimistic.
“In the St Petersburg region, there is talk of implementing the proposed legislation on discrimination that was originally put forward in 1996. That would mean that we made it very clear that there are injustices – and that we need a plan to deal with them.”
He points out that his knowledge of violence is not purely theoretical. He has served in Azerbaijan under warlike circumstances. There is a lot in the world that is getting better.
“Non-violence is better for people. We can see now that the number of wars is falling, our ability to negotiate has become so much better. We also know that it is worth investing in the prevention of all kinds of violence, in the interest of society. Violence costs. That’s an argument everyone understands.”
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.