Russian Women Overcoming Violence

by Renfrey Clarke

The victim in roughly half of all Russian murders is a woman. The typical setting is the home, and the killer is usually the woman's husband or partner. Figures released by government agencies during June put the number of women who died in Russia last year as a result of domestic violence at some 15,000. In this war within Russia's apartment blocks, waged against half the

country's population, the death toll each year is many times the number of Russian soldiers that have been killed in Chechnya.

The Russian State Committee on Statistics reported an 11.5% increase in recorded crimes against women during 1993. Apart from the murders, 56,400 cases of serious injury were registered. But the real number is far higher than this; the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda early this year estimated that only 7% of domestic violence victims file complaints with the police.

The number of cases of rape in recent years can only be guessed at. Official figures cite an increase in reported rapes from 10,900 in 1987 to more than 14,000 in 1994. But Tatyana Zabelina, a sociologist at the Institute of Youth, thinks this may represent as few as one in 50 of the rapes that actually occur.

"In our laws under the Soviets, there was not even one word about domestic violence. This problem of all forms of violence against women has always existed in our country and during the last few years it's become more brutal," Zabelina said in a recent interview with the English-language Moscow Tribune. Cases of wife beating or child abuse were recorded as ´´hooliganism'', or dismissed as the actions of maniacs.

Sociologists link the increase to growing unemployment and alcohol abuse. Another factor is homelessness; the women and children most at risk of sexual attacks include the growing number living in basements and railway stations.

Zabelina said the wives of the wealthy ´new Russians' are another much-abused group. "Their husbands can be very brutal," she said. "In their youth they were very poor ... Their wives remember that they were hungry students or shop assistants, and they are ashamed. They want everybody to respect them, but their wives cannot respect them in the way they want. They return drunk from lunches and parties and take out their frustrations on their wives."

Moscow's Crisis Centre for Women was established in 1993, and there are almost a dozen such centres in other Russian cities. In March 1994 a Sexual Assault Recovery Centre was established in Moscow, with Zabelina as its director. This centre runs a telephone hot-line known as ´Sisters', which in its first year received more than 2000 calls. During June, activists in Moscow published a 100-page handbook entitled ´How to Start and Manage a Women's Crisis Centre'.

Moscow's first women's shelter was established early this year, after the city government responded to a three-year campaign by providing welfare activists with a near-derelict building. Western-style legislation on domestic violence is also being drawn up for submission to the Russian parliament.