MOSCOW—When she finally managed to get through to the busy helpline at the ANNA center for victims of domestic violence, the young woman was hurt so badly she could not even cry: “My husband has beaten me severely,” she said, her voice blank. “I have a child with me and no place to go,” she said, and she was eight months pregnant.
Such calls have become increasingly common all across Russia during the COVID-19 lockdowns. “Most phone calls the center receives are from beaten women who have no shelter to run to,” Marina Pisklakova-Parker, the center’s director, told The Daily Beast. In this case, when the woman arrived she had a laceration on her temple where her husband had hit her on the head. She had a concussion. She was holding tight to the hand of her 3-year-old daughter.
Today, more than two months into the coronavirus shutdowns around the world, relationships are deteriorating and abuses intensifying in millions of households. Often left without any defense, people suffer from physical and sexual violence and various forms of psychological aggression. In Russia the number of domestic violence cases has increased by at least 250 percent since April 10, the Kremlin’s human rights commissioner, Tatiana Moskalkova, reports.
Hans Kluge, European regional director for the World Health Organization, recently told the press that in April, compared to last year, the organization’s member states were reporting up to a 60 percent increase in emergency calls by “women subjected to violence by their intimate partners.” Online enquiries to violence prevention support hotlines have increased fivefold in some regions.
The United Nations Population Fund “has sounded the alarm loud and clear,” said Kluge. “If lockdowns were to continue for six months, we would expect an extra 31 million cases of gender-based violence globally. Beyond the figures, only a fraction of cases is ever reported.”
No nation or society is immune, and none have truly accurate records because so much goes unreported. In the United States, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates "an average of 20 people experience intimate partner physical violence every minute," which is to say about 10 million a year—and that was before the lockdown.
Kluge was trying to make the point that such violence is not inevitable; it is preventable if governments make sure services are available for the victims and if neighbors support each other. “If you see something, say something,” he said, echoing a slogan used in the fight against terrorism.
Addressing the victims themselves, Kluge said, “Violence against you is never your fault. It is never your fault. Your home should be a secure place. Get in touch—safely—with family, friends, shelters or community groups that have your safety and security at heart.”
But Pisklakova-Parker, who founded ANNA (Association No To Violence) in 1993 as Russia’s first domestic violence hotline, knows how rare it is that governments and neighbors follow that advice, and how hard it is for women to act on it.
Last year ANNA registered about 34,000 calls, mostly from women with three or more years living with their abusers; in the past two months the number of calls has increased by more than 30 percent. The center also gives shelter to about 20 women.
The wounded pregnant woman who escaped from home with her child knew her husband could be abusive, but once they were locked down in the house by the COVID quarantine, she experienced violence for the first time and realized she was quite literally trapped.
The current self-isolation regime “is a gift for an aggressor to take full control over his victim,” Pisklakova-Parker told The Daily Beast. “Abusers often take phones away from women, so no information would leak out of the house.”
“Most Russian families are under economic stress,” says Pisklakova-Parker. “Phases of peace get shorter and phases of violence longer—I have never seen so many victims in my 30 years of experience.”
Russian legislators actually decriminalized domestic violence two years ago, and the country’s rating on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index dropped to 81st in the world, between El Salvador and Ethiopia.
Even in Western Europe, Hans Kluge noted, “Out of school, at-risk children are off the radar of education and social sectors.” Nobody sees their pain, and in many places prevention and protection services are on hold. “In lockdown, women and children are out of society’s sight, but more exposed to perpetrators at home.”
“The measures required to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 have challenged our ability to prevent and respond to violence when and where it occurs,” said Kluge. Trying to strike a more positive note, he noted that in Italy there’s “an app to ask for help without a phone call,” while in Spain and France pharmacists “can be alerted through codewords.” But that is very thin consolation even in those countries, and certainly not in Russia.
In Great Britain, for instance, charity groups registered a 65 percent rise in domestic abuse complaints on helplines in the first few weeks of the quarantine. But as Pisklakova-Parker points out, “Unlike in the UK, where police actually help, our women are reluctant to call, since they see no examples of a real solution from the state.”
Russian military officers like to say that a soldier risks his life to defend three mothers: Mother Russia, his own mother, and the mother of his children. But Russian women of all ages continue to suffer from violence.
A few celebrities appear inclined to help. The pop singer Valeria founded the Strong Women Party last November to lobby for the law to defend victims of domestic violence. But so far, at a time when the need is much more desperate than six months ago, no law has been issued, no new shelters can be found.
“Due to the self-isolation regime declared by President Putin last month, most permanent shelters for victims of domestic violence have closed down, so we, the network of women’s organizations around the country, find hotel rooms or rent apartments for dozens of women calling us,” Pisklakova-Parker explained.
In the very wide and dangerous world of domestic violence, Russia is particularly notorious. In recent years Russian elites, especially in Moscow, have grown less tolerant. When a television host, Regina Todorenko, described women revealing their stories of beatings as “psychologically sick,” Glamour magazine deprived her of the Woman of the Year title. A top manager at Alfa-capital, Yevgeny Zhizhov, was fired after his wife published photographs of her and her daughter’s bruised bodies.
There are only a handful of organizations that can provide immediate help for women in this vast country. Earlier this week The Daily Beast called the first 25 helplines listed on ANNA’s website. Only one “phone line of trust” was ready to provide help for women in trouble, the Nadezhda center in Arkhangelsk region. As for ANNA’s own helpline, it was constantly busy.
One more victim has recently managed to reach Pisklakova-Parker's shelter. A mother of two boys, a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old, ran out of her house to the street without any luggage, with her face bleeding badly. Luckily a woman driving by stopped to help, and had ANNA’s phone number.
“Men feel entitled to hurt women in Russia, our situation is very different from what European or American social workers, psychologists and police deal with,” says Pisklakova-Parker. “
Traditionally, Russian women tolerate violence longer even than other nationalities, forgiving their abusers. An ugly proverb advises, “If he beats you, it means he loves you.” Heavy drinking is commonplace, and drunk husbands often batter or murder their wives. Women get stabbed, burned, or thrown out of windows. Even before the pandemic, thousands of Russian women died annually from domestic violence, and what are certainly much higher numbers dying now are as yet uncounted.
“The legacy of this pandemic could haunt us for years,” warned the WHO’s Kluge. Indeed, the haunting already has begun.