A yearlong fight to enforce more legal protection for victims of domestic abuse took a step back this week in Moscow. The State Duma, Russia’s parliament, voted to roll back a law that made domestic abuse a criminal offence.

The amendments, dubbed the “slapping law” by some Russian media, mean hitting your wife, husband or kid, unless it causes serious bodily harm or is frequently repeated, is a civil offence, punishable by fines or days in jail. It also puts the onus on the victim to bring prosecution — another barrier for women who are already vulnerable.

‘I don’t know how we can protect the victims of domestic violence.’ – Alyona Popova, women’s rights activist

I feel awful because I don’t know how we can protect the victims of domestic violence,” says Alyona Popova, a women’s rights activist who spoke to CBC News on Friday outside the Duma, where she was protesting.

Law ‘protects the aggressor’

Statistics are difficult to verify in Russia, where many do not report domestic violence, but according to Russia’s interior ministry, 40 per cent of all violent crimes occur within the family.

“The law now doesn’t protect the victim, it protects the aggressor,” Popova says. “You can beat your wife and after that pay [a fine].”

Last summer, the State Duma decriminalized what it considered the least severe forms of assault, such as battery, but it exempted domestic abuse — something women’s rights activists considered a small victory.

But there was a backlash in the new, more conservative parliament elected last fall. Under pressure from conservative parenting groups and the Russian Orthodox Church, the deputies voted this week to strike domestic violence from the criminal code, as well.

In cases where there is severe bodily harm, like broken bones, or where the violence is severe and repeated, authorities can prosecute under criminal assault laws. But Russia would have no law specifically targeting domestic violence.

“They [the Church leaders] … say that the Russian traditional family doesn’t have problems with domestic violence so we do not need an article in the criminal code,” says lawyer Mari Davtyan.

The amendments passed through second and third reading unusually quickly this week. An MP for President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party told The Associated Press, “This is an historic vote because in certain countries the state’s role in family life is way too much.”

Traditional family groups resist the state meddling too much in family affairs, the say, and raising unwarranted suspicions about spousal abuse or violent parenting.

Maria Mamikonyan All Russia Parents Resistance

Maria Mamikonyan, president of the conservative family group All-Russian Parents’ Resistance, says special domestic assault laws aren’t needed because existing criminal assault laws are sufficient to prosecute perpetrators of ‘real beatings.’ (Susan Ormiston/CBC News)

“Of course families are afraid of interference because there has been a precedent already set over the last few years that when a kid shows up with a bruise, the parents are automatically suspected of beating him,” says Maria Mamikonyan, president of the All-Russian Parents’ Resistance.

“This presumption of guilt, to suspect the parents,” she says, “is a trend that has come from the West; it’s a defamation of the family.”

Criminal code covers ‘real beatings’

Mamikonyan blames feminists for inflating the incidence of family abuse and trying to confuse the public when there are already criminal laws that deal with assault.

‘In our criminal code we have other statutes that regulate, that will punish for beating — for real beatings.’ – Maria Mamikonyan, All-Russian Parents’ Resistance

“In our criminal code we have other statutes that regulate, that will punish for beating — for real beatings.”

The amendments still need to be signed into law by Putin.

For two days this week, Popova stood in the cold outside the parliament with her sign which questioned an old Russian proverb: “If he beats you, he loves you.”

“In my generation, 30-plus, we are sure that violence is a crime and it is not our tradition and it’s not our value or our families’ — we’re 100 per cent sure it’s not like that,” she says.

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