Activists in Russia Push to Make Domestic Violence a Voting Issue

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Middle-aged women are part of the core of Russia’s ruling party. Could its refusal to help domestic violence victims hurt its support in this weekend’s elections?

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MOSCOW — Sitting in the cramped kitchen of her suburban Moscow headquarters, Alyona Popova points to the five-story brick complex next door and explains why domestic violence is at the center of her campaign for a seat in the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament .

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“In every entrance, we have a story of domestic violence,” she said. “There, we have two grandmothers who were beaten up by their relatives. After that in one, we have the mother of three children. She is beaten up by her husband. And there, we have a mother who has been beaten up by her son.”

As she stumps in the 205th electoral district, a working-class area on the eastern edge of Moscow, Ms. Popova urges women to turn against Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, which has swayed women over the past several years. Security has been withdrawn. Leading up to this weekend’s election, she has presented the issue in urgent terms, and a proposal to subject all acts of domestic violence to criminal penalties is at the top of her campaign platform.

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According to Ms Popova’s analysis of data collected by Russia’s National Statistics Agency, more than 16.5 million are victims of domestic violence each year. women over 12,200, or two third According to one, among those killed in Russia between 2011 and 2019 were those killed by their associates or relatives Study.

“This is our reality; The only word we can use is ‘pandemic’, said Ms Popova, 38, a lawyer and activist running with the liberal Yablo Party, although she is not a member.

There is some evidence that many Russians agree with him. A 2020 vote The survey, conducted by the independent Levada Center, found that nearly 80 percent of respondents believe legislation is necessary to prevent domestic violence. a petition An initiative launched by Ms. Popova in support of such legislation garnered nearly one million signatures.

But will these supporters vote? And in authoritarian Russia, where election results are effectively predetermined, will it matter?

Even in a country where women make up 54 percent of the population, domestic violence is largely absent as a live issue for voters, thanks to problems such as corruption, rising consumer prices, lack of economic opportunities and the coronavirus pandemic. leaving behind.

“For our voters, the problem lies in the 90th,” Duma deputy speaker Pyotr O. Tolstoy, who is seeking a second term with United Russia.

He scoffed at suggestions that women might leave his party, which has 336 out of 450 seats in the Duma. Indeed, women form a core part of United Russia’s voter base. Partly this is because they occupy the majority of public sector jobs in fields such as teaching, medicine and administration, meaning their income often depends on the political system in power.

Irina Yugchenko, 43, also expressed doubts about Ms Popova’s focus on domestic violence as she stepped out of a subway station one recent evening. “Of course, there should be a law, but if it happens to women more than once, we have to ask why,” she said, expressing a common opinion in Russia. “If my friends had dealt with it, they wouldn’t have accepted it.”

She said she was unsure about who to vote for, and doubted the election would bring any change, adding that “we are not voting for the first time.” 1 July 2021 Survey found that only 22 percent of respondents planned to vote, which would be a 17-year low.

Over the past decade, Mr. Putin and his party have become increasingly conservative in their social policies. As Russia’s conflict with the West escalated, the Kremlin began to project itself as a bastion of traditional family values. The state promoted patriarchal family structures and supported reactionary attitudes towards LGBTQ Russians.

In 2016, the government labeled the Moscow-based Anna Center, which provides legal, material and psychological support to women dealing with abuse, a “foreign agent.” The designation carries a negative connotation and imposes heavy requirements. government last year Nominated Another group, Nasiliu.net (“No to Violence”), masquerade as a foreign agent.

Duma representative voted 380-3 in 2017 to partially reduce domestic violence, to reduce it to an administrative offense if it does not occur more than once per year. Damage that results in bruising or bleeding but broken bones is a fine of as little as 5,000 rubles or $68, little more than illegal parking. Only injuries such as bruises and broken bones, or repeated offenses against a family member lead to criminal charges. there is no legal means To issue prohibitory orders to the police.

A draft anti-domestic violence law proposed in 2019 triggered a debate in the Duma, but it was ultimately Amendment So much so that its early supporters, including Ms Popova, were “horrified”. It was never put to vote.

But in recent years, several dramatic cases have sparked outrage, making the issue more politically powerful. In a famous case, Margarita Gracheva’s husband chopped off both of her hands with an ax in 2017, months after she sought police protection. (He was later sentenced to 14 years in prison. Now he co-hosts a Display on state television about domestic violence.)

“Eventually the issue got so much attention that it became a political issue,” said Anna Center director Marina Piskalova-Parker.

In April, the Constitutional Court of Russia ordered Lawmakers have repeatedly called for amendments to the Criminal Code to punish perpetrators of domestic violence, concluding that both protections for victims and punishments for perpetrators were inadequate. And advocacy groups have reported an increase in domestic violence linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Duma has not acted.

Many voters of United Russia appreciate the government vouchers given to mothers. The benefit was only recently extended to women with only one child, as Moscow tries to make up for the country’s falling birth rate.

But it is no substitute for primary protection, said Oksana Pushkina, a popular television personality who entered the Duma with United Russia in 2016 and made fighting domestic violence one of her priorities.

“These are all support measures designed to leave a woman at home, not to create opportunities for her self-realization and economic independence,” she said. “In this way, Russian officials meet the basic needs of Russian women in exchange for their political loyalty. But such government spending is by no means a social investment.”

Ms. Pushkina, who advocated domestic violence legislation in the Duma, was not invited to run for a second term.

“Obviously, the people in United Russia and the presidential administration considered me very independent, and the pro-feminist agenda was very dangerous,” she said.

Experts and survivors say much of the opposition to the 2019 draft law was uninformed, with many opponents falsely claiming that if a restraining order was imposed, a person could lose their property, or that children could be removed from families. could.

“They fear that Stalin’s time, when people informed their neighbors, may return,” said Irina Petrakova, a human resources assistant who survived seven years of abuse by her ex-husband. She said she reported 23 incidents to the authorities on eight occasions, but her husband did not spend a single day in jail.

She, Ms Gracheva and two other women are suing Russia before the European Court of Human Rights for failing to protect them.

Ms. Petrakova, who also works as a life coach, said she supported Ms. Popova, whose district is close to her. But when asked if the United Russia’s refusal to combat domestic violence could drive women away from the party, she said. He said many of its voters have lived through the turmoil and priceless stability of the 1990s.

She planned to vote, but said there were no eligible candidates in her district.

“If I could make a check mark against everyone, I would,” she said.

Much of Russia’s opposition has been jailed, exiled or banned in elections this weekend. In a short meeting with potential constituents in a park on Sunday, Ms Popova, who is facing 10 other candidates, said she was committed to running for as long as possible, even Even for uncompetitive people.

And she was optimistic about the polls her team made, showing very strong support for them among women aged 25 to 46.

“It means women are uniting for change, for the future,” she said. “This is the main victory we can imagine during our campaign.”

Two young women in the audience said they planned to vote for him.

Maria Badmayeva, 26, says, “Perhaps the women of the older generation consider domestic violence to be normal. But we are more progressive in the younger generation. We think the values ​​Alyona stands for are essential.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.

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