Russia's battered women find a voice

FOR 25 years Irina kept the beatings a secret

FOR 25 years Irina kept the beatings a secret. Her husband Sacha rarely hit her, he concentrated instead on areas of her body where the bruising would not show.

She is now 53 years old. Her husband has moved on to a younger woman.

"I survived," she says simply. Every year thousands of other Russian women do not.

At the Women's Crisis Centre in Moscow, volunteers take calls from hundreds of women in similar situations to Irina. In 1993 battering claimed the lives of 14,500 women, according to official figures. A year later officials quoted a figure of more than 15,500. More than 56,000 were seriously injured.


Recent statistics are more difficult to find. Bad publicity has prompted the government to suppress them, according to the women at the crisis centre.

There is no word for wife-beating in Russian. A man who hits his wife can be charged with hooliganism if the injuries are severe enough and if she has witnesses to prove it. But few women risk bringing their husbands to court and fewer again are prosecuted.

"Wife-battering is socially acceptable in Russia," says Marina Pisklakova who runs the crisis centre. "Women are afraid to turn to the police for help. If they do not totally dismiss what they say, they treat them like they have betrayed their husbands. They will rarely investigate a complaint unless the woman has been murdered.

"The courts look on it as a private matter between husband and wife. Even by fellow women, wives are blamed for provoking violence for not being a proper mother or partner."

Marina set up the hotline for women, which she runs from a small office in Moscow, two years ago after she discovered that two women whose children were in the same class as her own children were being abused by their husbands. For the first six months she took the calls on her own. There is still no state funding for the centre. The Duma began drafting legislation to deal with the issue in 1995.

"On the last count, they were on their 31st version," says Marina. "The new Duma is very conservative. They are not ready to deal with the problem. It is not a priority for politicians."

The problem is deep-rooted, she explains. "It is not confined to any social group. Poverty and alcoholism may be a factor but they are not solely to blame. Women and children are considered the property of the husband in Russia. Girls are educated to be polite and tolerant, to sacrifice themselves. Men believe they have the right to treat them as they wish."

Leaving is not easy for the victims of domestic violence. Housing is extremely expensive in the new Russia. Many women are completely dependent on their husbands financially. According to last year's statistics, women accounted for more than 60 per cent of the unemployed.

There is no hostel for battered women in Moscow, a city with a population of 12 million people. There are, in fact, only two in the country - one in St Petersburg and one in Siberia, each of which can shelter very few families.

Irina was luckier than most in that her husband was well-off financially and could afford to move out of their home. "Find a younger woman, I am too old for you," she had urged him, believing that he already had.

She did not dare mention the fact that she wanted to leave him because of his violent behaviour for fear of exacerbating the problem. "An influential man," is how she describes her husband. "He is well known and respected."

Sacha started beating her when she was pregnant with their first child. She had a second child, hoping, she says, that it would take his mind off her. It didn't. For the next 25 years she could expect to be beaten at least once a month.