If you break a girl’s rib she’ll grow 40 new ones.
“It is still the woman who is given the blame. People say it’s her responsibility to hold the family together.”
Who: Natalia Lokhmatkina
What: PhD in the study of abused women in the Russian healthcare system.
“I didn’t know how to raise the subject without causing them pain,” she tells us. “As far as the women were concerned, what had happened was sensitive and personal. There was nothing in my medical education to tell me how I should help them, so I started looking for material for doctors, and almost everything was in English.”
She started talking with her friends and colleagues and, with the help of American aid money, the group started a hotline and trained nurses and doctors in how they could ask questions to find out if the women had been abused.
“You have to create the right conditions for a good dialogue, so you can ask the women, even though they don’t think it’s any of the doctor’s business. We also wrote manuals detailing exactly how the questions should be asked, and what answers to expect.”
37 per cent of the 1,242 women who answered the questionnaire had at some time suffered physical or mental violence.
It was natural for Natalia to go on and study how common it is in the healthcare system to come across women patients who have been the victims of violence in the home. The women filled in the questionnaires themselves. The result showed that 37 per cent of the 1,242 women who answered the questionnaire had at some time suffered physical or mental violence. The figure was lower than Natalia had expected. Because violence can be defined in different ways, different surveys produce different results. The figures in one survey which received a lot of attention, a study of married women in seven regions in Russia, carried out by the Council for Women of Moscow State University in 2002-2003, are higher:
- 70 per cent had at some time been the victim of some form of psychological, physical, sexual or economic abuse in the relationship
- 36 of the women had experienced physical and psychological violence
- 18 per cent lived with regular physical abuse
- One woman in two said the relationship included some kind of restriction or threat.
The conclusion is that while it is not certain that Russian women are more likely to be subjected to violence than women in most other countries, the problem is more difficult to combat because the violence is considered to be a ‘private’ matter, and therefore invisible, and is not even defined in Russian law.
Natalia has continued to gather knowledge. It appears to be more common in Russia that an abused woman has injuries to her face and head.
“But all too often the women are unaware of their situation. When the injuries have healed, that’s the end of the matter as far as she’s concerned; to her it’s – nothing.”
A Russian woman who has been subjected to violence is more likely to have an alcohol problem than other women. The reason for this is unclear. A study from 2003 suggests that women use alcohol as a means of coping with their situation.
“But we really need to carry out a five-year study to be sure of the link,” explains Natalia.
She herself has withdrawn from the front-line as a researcher, and now spends her time supporting individual women. These have been difficult years, particularly given the mental pressure she was under during the year she spent fighting to have her thesis on abused women patients in the Russian healthcare system approved.
“I had to defend my findings in front of twenty middle-aged men who said that this was not science. They didn’t want to have anything to do with the question. I assume it was painful for them, which is a normal defence mechanism, because they themselves are part of the problem.”
We believed we would change the lives of the abused women. But it’s so difficult, so hopeless.
When it was over, Natalia suffered from depression.
“We were so optimistic at the beginning of the 2000s. We believed we would change the lives of the abused women. But it’s so difficult, so hopeless. There is more knowledge about it in society, and the subject isn’t taboo any longer. But it is still the women themselves who are given the blame; a woman is expected to take responsibility for holding the family together.”
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.