‘The punishment for beating your wife now feels like paying a parking ticket’ — Alena Popova
MOSCOW – For Russian women’s rights activist Alena Popova, battling the patriarchy is a full-time job. The 35-year-old has become a regular fixture both in and outside of the national parliament in Moscow, where she lobbies lawmakers to take a stand against the country’s endemic domestic violence problem.
‘I troll them,’ she says with confidence, her eyes glinting.
‘When they see me coming, they turn the other way. Some actually run off.’
Popova describes how she stuffs the letterboxes of MPs with photographs of battered women, along with long printed lists containing their names. There is no shortage of victims: domestic violence kills at least 12,000 women in Russia each year, according to official figures. And the situation is getting worse.
This month, Russia will mark a year since President Vladimir Putin softened domestic violence legislation, making it easier for would-be abusers to harm women.
‘The punishment for beating your wife now feels like paying a parking ticket,’ Popova says, exasperatedly. Under the new rules, abusers can avoid jail time and instead pay a £375 fine if the beatings occur less than once a year and do not cause broken bones or a concussion.
Popova says that with decriminalisation, the government sends a dangerous signal of tacit approval, making police even less motivated to pursue cases of abuse. She is visibly pained by the way the legal infrastructure regularly fails millions, tightening her dark green eyes in horror as she describes the plight of Russian women.
The native of the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg belongs to a cohort of women now trying to overturn the law. They also want to go a step further, and introduce a brand new domestic violence law. (Currently, 127 countries have a specific bill targeting domestic violence; Russia is one of 18 countries without one, sharing the spot with various sub-Saharan countries that are far less developed).
Popova knows how the system works. A former journalist, she is now training to be a lawyer. When she finishes, in a year’s time, she plans to defend domestic violence victims. She has also twice run for parliament.
The W Project, which she co-founded with prominent Russian journalist Marina Akhmedova almost two years ago, has drafted a new domestic violence law with some of the country’s most dogged family lawyers. Their law includes the introduction of restraining orders (currently lacking), and state-provided legal support (as it stands, victims are tasked with collecting the evidence against their abuser).
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