Russian women stuck in lockdown hell as abuse surges

Moscow (AFP) –


Ineta Akhtyamova's husband flew into a rage in late April, about a month into Moscow's coronavirus lockdown.

She was preparing a meal in the small apartment she shares with her partner when he exploded, calling her names, hitting her and shouting at her to get out.

"So off I went. I just could not take it anymore," said Akhtyamova, a 50-year-old singer who lost her income due to confinement restrictions.

"I'm bad if I stay quiet. I'm bad if I talk. I'm bad if I make soup. I'm bad if I cook potatoes," she told AFP.

When her partner hit her before, she would run to friends. This time she had nowhere to go.

Friends were reluctant to take her in over fears of coronavirus infection, and two women's shelters turned her away because of Moscow's city-wide quarantine.

With the help of a crisis centre, Akhtyamova finally found temporary shelter in a small, two-star hotel in eastern Moscow.

Rights groups say that domestic violence has surged around the world since the start of lockdowns, with the stress caused by social isolation and fears around financial security straining even healthy relationships.

The quarantine has hit victims of domestic violence especially hard -- some have seen verbal hostility escalate into physical abuse, and for others routine beatings have become even more severe.

Women in Russia have been left especially vulnerable.

- Suffer in silence -

"The situation here is worse because there's no law," said Marina Pisklakova-Parker, a women's rights campaigner.

In 2017, President Vladimir Putin decriminalised some forms of domestic violence and most abusers can get away with a fine.

Advocates say the lack of legislation, including restraining orders, as well as a shortage of shelters nationwide and police who are unresponsive to appeals for help, have left Russian women unprotected.

Every year, nearly 16.5 million women across the country fall victim to domestic violence, according to activists' pre-quarantine estimates.

Pisklakova-Parker, founder of the ANNA women's rights group, said they registered a 30 percent spike in calls to their nationwide hotline between February and late April.

Had Russia adopted a domestic violence law, coping with the upsurge would have been easier, she said.

Last month, Pisklakova-Parker and several other campaigners urged the government to urgently protect domestic abuse victims.

Authorities, they said, need to set up enough shelters and conduct an awareness-raising campaign on violence against women, among other measures.

Those calls have fallen on deaf ears.

The interior ministry said this month there was no evidence domestic violence was on the rise. On the contrary, it said, such crimes went down by nine percent in April compared to last year.

Alyona Sadikova, head of the Kitezh crisis centre, said they had received more than 400 calls for help since the enforcement of stay-at-home rules. Most of the victims said police did not help.

Before the pandemic, women could leave their abusers, find jobs and send children to kindergartens. Now, Sadikova said, many have adopted a different strategy: sit tight and suffer in silence.

"The country's economic prospects are not clear," Sadikova said. "So many have decided to endure it until the very end."

Akhtyamova, the Latvian-born singer, has lived at the eastern Moscow hotel free-of-charge for the past three weeks.

It was Sadikova's centre that helped her find the make-shift shelter and is now paying for her meals.

"I feel safe here," Akhtyamova told AFP in a cafe which shares premises with the hotel.

"People are treating me so well here that I even forgot about my despot husband," the bespectacled woman laughed.

- Worst still to come -

Valentina Konstantinova, the hotel's owner, said it and another she runs had offered refuge to two dozen domestic violence victims since the lockdown began.

One of her friends also briefly stayed at the hotel with her child.

Pisklakova-Parker said authorities should take action immediately because the worst is yet to come.

"What we are seeing now is just the beginning," she said, adding many victims could not reach out for help because they are closely controlled by their partners.

More women and their abusers are also likely to lose jobs due to the economic crisis, which will exacerbate tensions, she said, even if restrictions are eased soon.

"When the quarantine is lifted, we will see aftershocks, waves of family violence," said Pisklakova-Parker.

"That's why it is very important to focus as much as possible on this problem now."