Russia: Domestic violence reports spike amid virus lockdown

FILE In this file photo taken on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, people hold banners against domestic violence as they attend a rally in Moscow's downtown, Russia. Russia's human rights ombudswoman says the number of domestic violence cases in the country grew 2 1/2 times during the lockdown he government ordered the population into a lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)
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Reported domestic violence cases in Russia more than doubled during the country’s coronavirus lockdown, the human rights ombudswoman said Tuesday, painting a completely different picture than that provided by police data.

Complaints and reports made to Russian non-governmental organizations spiked from roughly 6,000 in March to more than 13,000 in April, Tatyana Moskalkova said. “The picture is rather non-optimistic,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted her as saying.

Her statement comes a week after Russian police said the number of domestic crimes fell by 13% during the lockdown, compared to the same month last year — a report dismissed by some women’s rights campaigners as inaccurate, as many victims don’t report domestic abuse to the police.

Growing numbers of domestic abuse complaints have been reported all across Europe after governments instituted lockdowns and ordered residents to stay at home, as the frustrations of enforced isolation, often fueled by increased use of alcohol and dire economic straits, aggravated existing tensions or triggered new ones. Women and children are usually the victims.

In Spain, calls to a domestic violence helpline increased by 60% in April compared with the same month last year, the Equality Ministry said Tuesday. The number of calls was up 38% from March, when in the middle of the month the government ordered a lockdown.

Lawmakers in the UK found that calls to a national domestic abuse helpline jumped by 49% in early April compared to the average in the same period in previous years. France’s National Federation of Women Solidarity said the hotline they run has received double to triple the usual daily number of calls since France imposed a lockdown on March 17. In Greece, where the lockdown started March 23, a government helpline received nearly four times as many complaints in April as in March.

In many countries, government officials are taking steps to address the problem.

The French government introduced a text messaging number and a Twitter account victims can reach out to in addition to the usual police number. Moreover, authorities tasked pharmacies and a number of chain supermarkets to arrange points of contact for domestic abuse victims. Britain pledged 76 million pounds ($95 million) to help vulnerable children and victims of domestic violence.

Russia, meanwhile, is not doing enough, rights groups argue.

The Kremlin imposed a nationwide lockdown in late March. Almost immediately, women’s rights advocates sounded the alarm about a surge of domestic violence cases, urging action to protect victims.

In a letter to the government, nine non-governmental organizations asked officials to set up more shelters, instruct policemen about the importance of responding to domestic violence calls and help victims get medical, legal and psychological help.

Nothing has been done so far, said Olga Gnezdilova, lawyer with the Russian Justice Initiative, one of the groups that signed the letter. “In order to take additional measures during the crisis and the lockdown, we need changes in the law and political will,” Gnezdilova told The Associated Press.

Domestic violence has been rampant in Russia for years, and so far little political will has been shown to tackle the issue. Despite the fact that, according to police data, up to 40% of all violent crimes are committed within families, in 2017 Russian President Vladimir Putin downgraded simple assault against a family member from a criminal offense to a misdemeanor, punishable by a $76 fine.

The move, rights groups argued, encouraged abusers and made protecting victims even harder.

Attempts to pass a long-anticipated domestic violence law stalled last year amid push back from conservative groups and the Kremlin’s efforts this year to fast-track a constitutional reform that would allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036.

Existing legislation outlines punishment for abusers, but doesn’t protect the victims, women’s rights lawyers who worked on the bill last year explained to the AP. There is no such thing as a restraining order, shelters are scarce – roughly 200 in a country of 146 million – and police almost never detain domestic abusers for more than several hours.

“An investigation of your complaint can take months, and during those months you are absolutely helpless,” said Mari Davtyan, a women’s rights advocate specializing in domestic abuse cases.

Being confined to the home victims share with their abusers makes the situation worse, women’s rights campaigner Alyona Popova told the AP.

“Victims are scared. They share ownership of the property with (their) aggressor and stay together in isolation at the same apartment with children. The apartments are usually small so it’s impossible to be isolated from each other,” she said.

Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get police to respond to domestic violence calls, according to Bulat Mukhmedzhanov of the Zone of Rights legal aid group.

Even before the epidemic, they rarely took family conflicts seriously, and now that all their resources are thrown at enforcing the lockdown there is little hope that they would help. “The informal response would probably be that we have enough problems as it is,” Mukhmedzhanov told the AP.