When Quarantine Kills: the impact of isolation measures on domestic violence in Russia8 min read

 In Civil Society, COVID-19, Interview, Russia
Just a week before the seriousness of the ongoing pandemic really hit, when it was still possible – though a bit complicated – to travel between countries, I found myself in a hotel elevator with the director of Nizhny Novgorod’s Shelter for Women in Crisis, Anastasia Ermolaeva, the organizer of a conference on preventing violence in families and among young people in Russia, which I was attending. Looking up from my phone and the news of the world, I admitted to Anastasia that I was feeling anxious about the future. 

“In Russia,” she said, “you can only live for the day – the rules might change overnight”. 

Less than a week later, as I was about to go to sleep, this is exactly what happened: local governor Gleb Nikitin imposed quarantine for all citizens in my region. Overnight, we had lost the right to leave our homes except to see a doctor, shop at a supermarket, take out the trash, or walk the dog. There was no time to prepare, to get what you need, or to get to safety.

Locked up

A number of international news outlets and NGOs have already reported that self-isolation regimes and forced quarantine have resulted in increasing incidences of domestic violence. Right now, entire families are locked up in their homes. 

Faced with the prospect of serious income loss or even losing one’s job will likely increase feelings of helplessness and insecurity, which are two factors known to increase violence. As a country that has witnessed some truly grizzling cases of domestic violence – the most famous one being the ongoing murder trial against three sisters who stabbed their father to death after having suffered years of abuse – Russia is only likely to move further down this path.  

No legal protection

In Russia, the topic of domestic violence is still controversial. Hundreds of women in Russia are estimated to die from violence caused by a family member every year, yet it’s not a question that enjoys widespread public interest. As it is not recognized as a stand-alone offence, Russian legislation does not provide any measures to prevent or protect victims of domestic violence. While women’s rights advocates raise awareness of domestic violence and fight for stricter laws to protect victims, a vocal and influential segment of society opposes any kind of change to the country’s weak legislation on domestic violence, citing the need to protect Russian family traditions

In 2016, the law was amended to explicitly name assault against a family member as a crime punishable with up to two years in prison. However, this was soon revoked by the introduction and adaptation of another amendment in 2017, put forth by traditionalists, which made the criminalization of domestic violence the shortest-lived act of its kind in modern Russian history. Scholars like Marianna Muravyeva have called this “the biggest blow to the human rights of women in Russia since the early 2000s.” The recent decriminalization of first violent offences among family members in 2017 displayed the apparent struggle between traditionalists and liberal-oriented activists, who had put forward that ill-fated law to punish perpetrators of domestic violence. 

While the question appears to have gained some momentum in public debate for the last two years – especially connected to the case of the Khachaturian sisters – its proponents had reached a legislative deadlock even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

As a country that already lacks legal structures to protect women, how will this pandemic affect Russia? The pessimistic answer is: We don’t know. I called the local Crisis Center and once again got to talk to Anastasia, to ask for her opinion on how the current self-isolation regime will affect Russian women and especially those in abusive relationships. She told me that official “cases of domestic violence are not expected to increase during this period, because we don’t have a law for it.” For as long as the Russian government refuses to fight domestic violence – indeed, for as long as the government refuses to keep track of it – the official record will remain the same. “Besides,” Anastasia adds, “women who leave their houses to go to the police now are breaking the quarantine.” Though this might sound strange, it is true to the extent that the government does not systematically collect information about domestic violence and that the lack of a law or legal definition of the phenomenon prevents a categorization of the abuse as such.

Keep away from windows and locked spaces

Asked if her organization has seen an increase in calls to the hotline, Anastasia tells me it’s too early to have any results yet. The strict quarantine has only been in force since March 28th, and it’s the Moscow coordinators of the national helpline that put together and analyze the statistics. However, the counselors at the Centre in Nizhny – these days working from home – have told her that they have noticed an increase in the occurrence of severe violence since the quarantine was enforced. Indeed, a worrisome indicator of what may be to come. 

When I ask Anastasia for advice for women in abusive relationships, she tells me that they should avoid provoking any kind of conflict or argument (here she firmly points out that no kind of conflict or provocation ever legitimizes the use of violence). Anastasia’s staffers tell callers to keep away from windows and locked spaces as well as from knives – an almost impossible task when you’re stuck in an apartment with someone. Mostly, though, they repeat the same advice as always, pandemic or no pandemic: for women to reach out to relatives or neighbors, to keep a bag with important documents and some money ready, and, if things get really bad, to call a helpline, relatives, or even the police. 

Because of the quarantine, the few existing shelters that normally welcome women who are looking to get out of an abusive situation have been forced to refuse calls for help. When I ask how the Crisis Center in Nizhny Novgorod is planning to to adapt to the situation, Anastasia tells me that their psychologists and therapists are doing phone counseling from home and that they’re planning to set up some kind of online chat forum for women who can’t call because of their living situation. They are also continuing their weekly group sessions online instead of meeting up at the Centre. 

Economic constraints 

As an organization dependent on grant money and currently a recipient of the Russian Presidential Grant, I wonder how the Crisis Centre will be affected by the looming economic recession that threatens long-term impacts on the entire Russian economy. Will this mean that state grants will be cut or that the competition among applicants will increase? Anastasia tells me that it’s still too early to tell, but that the Centre will of course be affected if state grants are cut. “If we apply for international grants, the situation might not be so bad, but the situation is complicated because as a recipient of foreign grant money, you can be labeled a foreign agent” adding that she “won’t hesitate to apply for foreign grants but if the economic crisis is further severed on a global level, we might not be able to get any money from abroad either”. 

Being creative with what you’ve got 

As I’m asking Anastasia these questions, I’m reminded that this is not the first time that the Russian economy has gone through a crisis or that Russian civil society has been put under pressure, however unique the current situation is. She also does not seem overly worried or worked up by the situation. This takes me back to that brief meeting that we had in the elevator a few weeks before. In Russia, the rules can change overnight. By now even I have experienced the truth of that statement. This means that Russian civil society has to constantly adapt and adjust to new, sometimes unpredicted circumstances, which has created resilience and creativity that goes beyond global or national economic fluctuations. 

The lack of legislative protection for women in Russia as well as forceful outcries against those who try to raise awareness and push for politicians to take responsibility means that the COVID-19 crisis has made an already difficult situation even worse. While the quarantine probably won’t be particularly long-lasting, for some, it could be lethal. The long-term consequences of an economic recession, and of people being laid off or losing their businesses, also mean that we’re entering a period of heightened insecurity, helplessness, and constraints, which will most likely increase all forms of interpersonal violence. Moreover, the quarantine disrupts the important work being done by activists and human rights advocates to change the mindset of people; to persuade their fellow citizens that domestic violence is a widespread problem, that victims need to be protected, and that their perpetrators need to be held accountable and brought to justice. 

If you want to read more about the specific impacts of COVID-19 on women’s life, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy offers an excellent collection of articles related to the issue. You’ll find it here.

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