The tail of a salmon and the words of a girl are the slipperiest things on the planet.
“When I started working I was naive, and my aim was to have families reunited.”
Who: Elena Zolotilova and Tatiana Pavlova
What: Fighting to open the city’s first women’s shelter.
The region of Rostov on the border with Ukraine has at least four million inhabitants, but not a single bed for abused and battered women who need to leave home. The authorities refuse. An offer of state financing for a shelter has been made, but the social authorities answered that there was no need.
“They don’t want any extra work,” sighs Elena. “They think it will just mean more paperwork and problems.”
But the abused and battered women exist, whatever the authorities say. In an armchair in Elena’s clinic, another client is waiting. Olga, a thin, sad-looking, young woman wants to tell us her story. She has filed for divorce but is still forced to live with her husband.
“At the moment he’s not beating me in a way that leaves visible injuries,” she begins, “he just pushes me and shouts in my face. Just to keep me afraid.”
Olga threw her violent husband out once, but then he started stalking her, and on one occasion he tried to get into her home by breaking a window. The police said: “This is a matter for your family.” Her family excused her husband and insisted that the young couple “sort out the problem”. They have to share a home until the divorce comes through, but since the flat they have been living in is in Olga’s parents’ names, she will be able to keep it.
“This is the only place I get any support,” says Olga. “It’s a big step for me, filing for divorce. From the outside, our family looks perfect. My parents were proud of me and it’s hard for them now, they’re hoping we can get back together again. But I know I have to leave him for my daughter’s sake. I don’t want her to get the wrong picture of what marriage is like; imagine if she repeats the pattern.”
I have to leave him for my daughter’s sake. I don’t want her to get the wrong picture of what marriage is like; imagine if she repeats the pattern.
The problem is that there is a housing shortage all over Russia, and there are too few women’s shelters. This makes it difficult for a woman who wants to leave a violent husband. She has, quite simply, nowhere to go. It is common for divorced couples to continue to share a home, even the same room. Society’s help is often based on the principle that a woman who has been beaten should return to her family.
In an inventory of Russian women’s shelters in 2009, the ANNA centre in Moscow, which works to put an end to men’s violence against women and children, found only 23 shelters which worked specifically with abused and battered women. This means that there are approximately 200 beds – in a country with 142 million inhabitants.
In St Petersburg, we visit a shelter which was started by a non-governmental organisation in 1996 and was the first in Russia. It is now run by the city. The shelter has 17 beds, but only takes in women who are registered as living in the city and who have all their papers in order. The women can stay for two months, after which most of them return to their husbands.
There are approximately 200 beds in women’s shelters – in a country with 142 million inhabitants.
Other social services offices offer abused women counselling but no practical help.
“Russian women are too patient,” says Liudmila Logunova who works at the city district’s Centre for Women in Difficult Life Situations. “They see violence as being a normal part of life and they only come to us in extreme cases. Then it’s usually because the children are suffering too. The woman sees the violence being used against her as an everyday occurrence, a natural part of life.”
And what can you do for the woman?
”The first thing is to sort out the problems within the family, so she knows she has done everything she can to save the relationship.”
What else would you like to be able to do?
”We need more shelters. The woman has nowhere to go. She is left on her own with her sorrow and her fears for the children. A basic problem is that she can’t support herself, especially if she has small children. The parental benefit she receives hardly covers the cost of nappies and food for the children. She needs lots of documents or she won't receive any welfare benefits at all. So she’s trapped.
At the Centre in Rostov, we wait in vain for the woman who booked a meeting for advice. No-one is surprised. It usually takes time for a woman to take the first step. Things are quiet in the office, which consists of three small rooms, in one of which there is always someone ready to answer the hotline.
Elena tells us about her background.
“I qualified as a psychotherapist in 1999. When I started working I was naïve, and my aim was to have families reunited. I genuinely believed that the woman and the man were equally responsible for the violence and the family’s problems. But then I went on a course abroad and realised that there was a group among my clients where the problem was more than just a bad marriage.”
At that time the resources were there, because when the Soviet Union broke up foreign aid was received, some of it earmarked for women’s projects, both from the US and from Europe.
Between 2008 and 2010, Elena worked with a shelter for women who had become victims of trafficking. But the interest of the rest of the world in supporting Russia fell away, and the shelter closed.
According to the most recent official figures 9,000 Russian women are killed each year in their own home by a husband or ex-husband, boyfriend or ex-boyfriend.
Today, Elena and her colleague, Tatiana Pavlova, have to be creative, they are looking for partners and they have been given rooms both at a lawyer’s office and on the premises of a male psychiatrist. The police are not interested in cooperating with Elena and Tatiana, but a prosecutor has agreed to a meeting. They continue to pester the police, courts and hospitals for statistics on the violence against women.
“Because at the moment we’ve got nothing to base our arguments on.”
According to the most recent official figures 9,000 Russian women are killed each year in their own home by a husband or ex-husband, boyfriend or ex-boyfriend. There are no figures for the number of murders of women in Rostov. The murder of a spouse in the home is never a reason for making a police report public. It is, quite simply, not considered to be a matter of public interest.
Elena herself has no idea of how many women are murdered in the region, who they are or how they died. She can only guess.
“We meet a lot of injured women, women who have broken noses and problems with their vision or hearing as a result of being beaten … and who stop coming to us. They stop getting in touch. Their telephone numbers no longer work. And of course we wonder: are they still alive?”
What makes you carry on fighting against the odds?
“We think we can see a change in attitudes,” she replies. “Both men and women in Rostov are less hostile to what we are saying, and in fact they agree with us more often. The young people think differently, and that’s a good sign.”
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.