Russia has decriminalised domestic violence. This is not a drill. This is really happening. If antibiotic resistance is going to send us into a medical dark age, then this is going to send us in to a social one.
In 2016, the Russian parliament, known as the Duma, decriminalised battery on the basis that it is a ‘minor’ form of assault. At this time they actually made domestic abuse exempt from the decriminalisation, and punishable by a two-year maximum sentence. The Russian Orthodox Church hit back, proclaiming “the reasonable and loving use of physical punishment” within one’s family to be a God-given right. After all, we have the Russians to thank for the adage, “If he beats you it means he loves you”. Romantic, no? On January 25, under pressure from the church and other conservative bodies, the Duma voted overwhelmingly in favour (385–2) of a bill decriminalising domestic violence. On February 7, Putin signed the bill into law.
Under this new law, colloquially referred to as the “slapping law”, the first instance of domestic battery that doesn’t “cause significant harm” is considered only an administrative violation, and punishable by a $500 fine, community service, or a 15-day detention. That, of course, is only if the victim can prove what occurred, because the new law also classifies domestic battery as a private prosecution, and so bringing a case against your abuser is entirely the responsibility of the abused. This applies to spousal battery, as well as that of children. Good luck with the court case, little Yuri! An important loophole: you can be prosecuted under criminal law if you are found guilty of domestic battery more than once within a 12-month period, giving people, as the Economist puts it, a “pass to beat relatives once a year”. What a time to be alive.
One of the infinite problems with this law is its startlingly shortsighted definition of ‘harm’. Sure, bruises fade and minor injuries heal. Trauma, on the other hand, sticks.
In 2008, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published the findings of their multi-country study on the effects of domestic violence on women’s health. The study included 20,000 women across 10 countries who had experienced domestic violence. Domestic violence was defined as any intimate partner violence, ranging from being slapped through to being threatened with a gun or knife. Women who reported any experience of domestic violence were more likely to report recent experience of difficulty walking, difficulty with daily activities, pain, memory loss, dizziness, and vaginal discharge. Women who had experienced domestic violence were also more likely to report emotional distress, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts.
Under the new laws, abused women and children are entirely responsible for bringing a charge of violence against their abuser
The pathways between experiencing domestic violence and the resulting negative health outcomes are more complex than you might expect. Because much of what is known about the relationship between these variables is the result of survey data, the mechanisms are also unclear.
There are a few likely explanations though. One is that the experience of extreme stress elicits structural changes in the brain that lead to chronic mental health issues like insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Stress can also compromise the immune system making illness more likely, as well as contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and insulin-dependent diabetes.
The experience of an external stressor, like domestic violence, activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which results in the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. Research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology has shown that women exposed to domestic violence demonstrate abnormalities in HPA axis function, resulting in an over-production of cortisol. Think of it as something like being in a constant state of fight-or-flight, or that feeling when you almost drop a wine glass. Heart-racing, breath-quickening and sweat-inducing fear. This fear can also lead to poor coping mechanisms that negatively impact the health of women exposed to domestic violence, for example misuse of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.
It’s clear why the WHO defines domestic violence as not only a major human rights concern, but a global public health issue. And all of this makes it even more shocking that Russia is making such huge leaps backwards in their approach to domestic violence.
Previous statistics show that 14,000 Russian women die every year as a result of domestic violence, that’s 270 women PER WEEK. In the short time since the decriminalisation of domestic violence, police in Yekaterinburg (the fourth largest city in Russia) have noted a greater than two-fold increase in reports of domestic violence. If that trend holds, I shudder to think about how the mortality rate might increase for women in Russia dying at the hands of their husbands. And given that one of the greatest predictors of committing domestic violence against a spouse is being exposed to domestic violence between your parents as a child, I weep for the future.