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The duty to combat domestic violence

Kommersant, 06/02/2017

For many people, home means a refuge, a place where we feel safe and free. A place where our private life is sacred and where the state has no right to pry. But for victims of domestic violence, home means just the opposite: a source of stress and torment. The state has a duty to help them.

Domestic violence is one of the most widespread and pernicious problems worldwide, in particular for women and children, even though there are also cases where violence is inflicted upon men. Studies carried out in Europe estimate that domestic violence accounts for almost 28 per cent of all intentional homicides and that 30 per cent of women over 14 years of age have experienced intimate partner violence. Actual figures are even higher, because victims tend to underreport cases of violence.

The Russian Federation is no exception. According to various experts and official statistics, there have been over 50,000 criminal cases opened in relation to domestic violence in the country in 2015. Domestic violence represents 40 per cent of all violent crimes, causing thousands of deaths - mainly women and children - every year.

Such a situation requires concrete measures from the state to protect people from violence and confront the gender stereotypes and the ingrained patterns of inequality that are often the root causes of it.

The draft law on domestic violence which was passed by the Russian State Duma on 27 January 2017 goes in the opposite direction. By lowering the penalties against the perpetrators, the law downplays the impact of domestic violence and gives a strong signal to society that inflicting violence within the home can somehow be justified and tolerated.

The law’s supporters affirm that it eliminates a discrepancy resulting from the 2016 reform aimed at “humanising” criminal law. That reform - the argument goes – was discriminatory in the sense that perpetrators of battery outside the family receive administrative penalties, while those within the family face criminal responsibility. The law supporters also contend that decriminalising light forms of domestic violence would help family reconciliation after a quarrel, thus preserving traditional values and child rearing methods.

Underlying these arguments are dangerous messages which illustrate the urgent need to increase awareness in Russia about the strong negative impact of violence in the family.

From start, there is a need to recognise the specific nature of such a violence which, as all studies show, affects mainly women and girls with lasting deleterious impact on their health. Moreover, differently from battery outside the family, a victim of domestic battery lives with or meets regularly the perpetrator, a situation which amplifies the psychological, emotional and social wounds that this type of violence causes. Children who witness such violence experience its lasting effects long after they reach adulthood.

By ignoring the threats that domestic violence poses to a person’s physical and psychological integrity, the draft law and its rationale also disregard well-established human rights standards that oblige states to protect people from violence, in particular the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which are all binding on Russia.

By reducing the deterrent effect of sanctions, the draft law contributes to a sense of impunity and reinforces the perpetrator’s position of power over the victim, who will see no point in complaining to law enforcement agencies.

Lastly, it overlooks the trauma and negative developmental consequences that domestic violence may cause on children who either witness or suffer it. As the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child underscored “corporal punishment is invariably degrading”. The draft law also neglects the growing trend among Council of Europe member states to abolish all forms of corporal punishments against children, including at home.

Adopting the draft law would go counter to the positive steps taken in Russia over the last years to combat domestic violence, such as launching programmes and opening shelters for victims of domestic violence in several regions. These efforts should continue and form part of a comprehensive strategy to combat domestic violence in the country with a full set of legislative, political and operational measures, as also the Council on Civil Society and Human Rights by the President of the Russian Federation and the Federal Ombudsman have advocated. More generally, the authorities of the Russian Federation – government, parliament, judiciary and law enforcement alike – should focus on measures which prevent domestic violence in all its forms (physical, sexual, psychological or economic, including threats of such acts), protect its victims and prosecute the perpetrators.

I see in particular three main areas where the Russian authorities must invest more efforts.

The first is legislation. Russia should ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence because it provides a victim-centered approach and a comprehensive set of measures, including a monitoring mechanism designed to help states take the right steps to make women and children safer. To give full effect to this Convention, lawmakers should adopt a law on domestic violence which empowers judges to provide adequate remedies for the victims and to impose sanctions against offenders that are effective, proportionate and dissuasive.

The second area is effective policies. The Federal authorities should develop integrated strategies across the country to improve the functioning of social services available to victims of violence, increase the number of shelters, and implement programmes teaching non-violent interpersonal skills to perpetrators. Another key measure is the constant training of law enforcement officials, judges and health professionals which must be able to intervene in cases of domestic violence in a prompt and appropriate manner to protect victims.

The last area is awareness-raising. Political leaders, opinion makers, and public personalities must take the lead in condemning domestic violence and use their influence on public opinion to promote a cultural shift in which nobody promotes, justifies or condones violence in the family.

No valid excuse exists to obstruct these actions. Domestic violence is destructive to individuals and families. It represents a serious violation of human rights and a preventable public health problem. We cannot brush it aside as a “family matter”.