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Russia: answering thousands of calls for help from battered women

Yana Savchuk could have been saved. But when the 36-year-old Russian hairdresser called police in November saying that her partner was going to kill her, the officers who arrived cast off her cries for help as ridiculous.

“If you get killed, we will definitely come to examine the body,” one police officer quipped, as recorded on the victim’s phone, before leaving without offering protection. “Do not worry.”

Forty minutes later, Savchuk was dead, beaten to death by the same man police refused to arrest.

It was a domestic violence case that shocked Russia in 2016, triggering fiery debate on the role of police in addressing an epidemic that kills at least 12,000 women every year, according to Human Rights Watch. To understand how endemic Russia’s domestic violence problem is, consider it’s about 30 times worse than in neighboring Turkey, which has half the population. It’s about 37 times worse than the US which has twice the population of Russia.

Official Russian Interior Ministry statistics point to 4 million reported cases of domestic abuse in 2015 alone.

That statistic does not include the likely high number of unreported cases — many women in Russia, and around the world, do not report domestic abuse because of feelings of shame or fear of retribution.

Others, like Savchuk, lose their lives despite reaching out for help due to a police mentality that largely underplays gender-based violence and a police force relatively poorly trained and often legally unable to properly assist victims of violence.

“When I respond to domestic violence, I often feel useless because I can’t arrest the abuser without the victim’s written complaint,” said Vladimir, a policeman in a roughly 300-person village just outside of Moscow. “We don’t have a procedure of compulsory arrest.”

Vladimir would only speak on the condition that he not be identified by his real name.

In Vladimir’s village, dilapidated wooden houses sit not far from the mansions of those who commute into Moscow. Income doesn’t seem to matter — Vladimir responds to domestic violence calls at both types of properties every weekend. Usually alcohol is involved.

In the US starting in the 1990s, lawmakers and police officers combined forces to reduce domestic violence — with stunning results: domestic violence in the US has dropped more than 60 percent in the last 20 years. Training police officers and judges to act on calls, and toughening punishments, are credited in part for the decrease.

But Russia is heading in the other direction: On February 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a controversial law that decriminalized domestic abuse for first time offenders who do not inflict bodily harm requiring hospital treatment. Prior to Putin signing the bill, abusers faced up to two years in prison. Now, if found guilty in court, abusers could face a fine of between $85 and $500, 15 days in jail or compulsory work.

Yevgeny Roizman, the mayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, said the impact of the bill was felt immediately.

Two days after Putin signed the bill, he announced on Facebook that the number of calls to police in Yekaterinburg regarding domestic violence rose from about 120-130 per day before the bill to 300-350 per day after.

Members of the Russian parliament voted almost unanimously in favor of the bill, with parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a key advisor to Putin, saying the bill was “necessary to do everything in order to preserve the family.”

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*Yulia Bragina is a Moscow-based journalist and contributor to The Fuller Project for International Reporting. Sophia Jones, a Fuller Project senior editor and journalist, reported from Istanbul. Some names have been changed at the request of police officers who were not authorized to speak to the press.

[Photo Credit: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters]
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