2021-09-15 05:59:21 Activists in Russia Push to Make Domestic Violence a Voting Issue

Activists in Russia Push to Make Domestic Violence a Voting Issue

MOSCOW, Russia — Alyona Popova, sitting in the cramped kitchen of her suburban Moscow headquarters, pointed to the five-story brick complex next door and explained why domestic violence is at the heart of her campaign for a seat in Russia’s lower house of Parliament, the Duma.

“We have a story of domestic violence in each entrance,” she explained. “Right there, we have two grandmothers who have just been beaten by relatives. The one after that features a mother with three children. Her husband batters her. And there is a mother who is being beaten by her son.”

Ms. Popova urges women to vote against Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, which has rolled back women’s rights in recent years, as she campaigned across the 205th electoral district, a working-class area on Moscow’s eastern outskirts. She has presented the issue in urgent terms in the run-up to this weekend’s election, and her campaign platform includes a proposal to criminalize all acts of domestic violence.

Every year, more than 16.5 million people are victims of domestic violence, according to Ms. Popova’s analysis of data collected by Russia’s national statistics agency. According to one study, more than 12,200 women, or two-thirds of those murdered in Russia between 2011 and 2019, were murdered by their partners or relatives.

“This is our reality; the only word we can use is ‘epidemic,’” said Ms. Popova, 38, a lawyer and activist who is running as a candidate for the liberal Yabloko party, though she is not a member.

There is evidence that a large number of Russians agree with her. According to a 2020 poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, nearly 80% of respondents believe legislation to combat domestic violence is necessary. Ms. Popova’s petition in support of such legislation garnered nearly one million signatures.

Will these supporters, however, vote? And would it make a difference in authoritarian Russia, where election outcomes are effectively predetermined?

Even in a country where women constitute 54% of the population, domestic violence is largely absent as a motivating issue for voters, taking a back seat to issues such as corruption, rising consumer prices, a lack of economic opportunity, and the coronavirus pandemic.

“For our voters, this problem ranks 90th,” said Pyotr O. Tolstoy, the deputy speaker of the Duma who is running for re-election with United Russia.

He laughed off suggestions that women would abandon his party, which controls 336 of the 450 seats in the Duma. Women make up a sizable portion of United Russia’s voter base. This is due, in part, to the fact that they hold the majority of public sector jobs in fields such as teaching, medicine, and administration, which means that their income is frequently dependent on the political system in power.

As she exited a Metro station one evening recently, Irina Yugchenko, 43, expressed skepticism about Ms. Popova’s focus on domestic violence. “Of course, there should be a law, but if it happens to women multiple times, we have to ask why,” she said, echoing a widely held belief in Russia. “My friends would not accept it if they had to deal with it.”

She stated that she was undecided about who to vote for and expressed skepticism that the election would bring about any change, adding cynically, “we are not voting for the first time.” According to a July 2021 poll, only 22% of respondents planned to vote, a 17-year low.

Mr. Putin and his party’s social policies have become increasingly conservative over the last decade. As Russia’s conflict with the West widened, the Kremlin began to position itself as a defender of traditional family values. The state encouraged patriarchal family structures and promoted reactionary attitudes toward Russians who identify as L.G.B.T.Q.

The government designated the Moscow-based Anna Center, which provides legal, material, and psychological support to women who have been abused, as a “foreign agent” in 2016. The title has a negative connotation and imposes onerous requirements. Another group, Nasiliu.net (“No To Violence”), was designated as a foreign agent by the government last year.

Domestic violence was partially decriminalized by Duma deputies 380-3 in 2017, reducing it to an administrative offense if it occurs no more than once per year. Harm that causes bruises or bleeding but does not result in broken bones is punishable by a fine as low as 5,000 rubles, or $68, which is slightly more than illegal parking. Only concussions and broken bones, as well as repeated offenses against a family member, result in criminal charges. There is no legal framework in place for police to issue restraining orders.

A draft anti-domestic violence law proposed in 2019 sparked debate in the Duma, but it was eventually amended so drastically that its early supporters, including Ms. Popova, were “horrified.” It was never voted on.

However, several dramatic cases in recent years have sparked outrage, making the issue more politically potent. Margarita Gracheva’s husband chopped off both of her hands with an ax in 2017, months after she began requesting police protection. (He was subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison.) She now co-hosts a show about domestic violence on state television.)

“Eventually, this issue received enough attention to become a political issue,” said Marina Pisklakova-Parker, director of the Anna Center.

In April, Russia’s Constitutional Court ordered lawmakers to amend the criminal code to punish repeat perpetrators of domestic violence, concluding that both victim protections and offender punishments were insufficient. Domestic violence has also increased as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to advocacy groups.

The Duma has remained silent.

Many United Russia voters value government vouchers distributed to mothers. As part of Moscow’s efforts to increase the country’s declining birthrate, the benefits were recently extended to women with only one child.

But that is no substitute for basic protection, according to Oksana Pushkina, a popular television personality who joined United Russia in the Duma in 2016 and has made combating domestic violence one of her top priorities.

“All of these are support measures designed to keep a woman at home rather than provide opportunities for her self-realization and economic independence,” she said. “In this manner, the Russian authorities provide for the basic needs of Russian women in exchange for political loyalty. However, such government spending is far from a social investment.”

Ms. Pushkina, who advocated for the domestic violence law in the Duma, was not invited to run for re-election.

“Apparently, United Russia and people in the presidential administration thought I was too independent, and the pro-feminist agenda was too dangerous,” she explained.

According to experts and survivors, much of the opposition to the 2019 draft law was misinformed, with many opponents incorrectly claiming that if a restraining order is issued, a man may lose his property or children may be removed from families.

“They are afraid that the time of Stalin, when people knew everything about their neighbors, will return,” said Irina Petrakova, a human resources assistant who survived seven years of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband. She claims she reported 23 incidents to authorities on eight separate occasions, but her husband has not spent a single day in jail.

She, Ms. Gracheva, and two other women have filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights against Russia for failing to protect them.

Ms. Petrakova, a life coach, stated her support for Ms. Popova, whose district is adjacent to hers. When asked if United Russia’s refusal to combat domestic violence could drive women away from the party, she shrugged. She claimed that many of its supporters had lived through the turbulent 1990s and valued stability.

She intended to vote, but claimed there were no qualified candidates in her district.

“I would make a check mark against everyone,” she said.

The majority of Russia’s opposition has been imprisoned, exiled, or barred from running in this weekend’s elections. Ms. Popova, who is up against ten other candidates, said in a small meeting with potential constituents in a park on Sunday that she was committed to participating in elections, even if they were uncompetitive, for as long as possible.

She was also upbeat about polls her team had commissioned, which showed strong support for her among women aged 25 to 46.

“It means that women are banding together for the future, for change,” she explained. “This is the most important victory we can hope for during our campaign.”

Two young women in the audience stated that they would vote for her.

“Perhaps women of an older generation see domestic violence as normal,” Maria Badmayeva, 26, said. “However, as a younger generation, we are more progressive. We believe that the values that Alyona represents are critical.”

Reporting was contributed by Alina Lobzina.

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Activists in Russia Push to Make Domestic Violence a Voting Issue