Amnesty International Ukraine

Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Lack of protection against domestic violence exacerbated by crises and ‘traditional values’ – new report

The Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and a pervasive focus on ‘traditional values’ have contributed to a deterioration in human rights and rising levels of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Amnesty International said today in a new report.

The report, Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Protect Women from Violence in Crises and Beyond, exposes the institutional, social and cultural challenges faced by survivors of domestic violence in the region and demonstrates how disinterested and ill-adapted state institutions are in regard to their needs. Institutional, legal and other safeguards against such violence are largely inadequate and are being eroded even further due to a surge in traditional, patriarchal and openly misogynistic political rhetoric.

“Amnesty has documented the damaging effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown measures on safeguards against domestic violence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Crucially, these cannot be divorced from ineffective legal and institutional frameworks in the region, and deeply harmful political and social dynamics,” said Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Researcher.

Amnesty has documented the damaging effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown measures on safeguards against domestic violence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Crucially, these cannot be divorced from ineffective legal and institutional frameworks in the region, and deeply harmful political and social dynamics.

Natalia Nozadze, Eastern Europe and Central Asia Researcher, Amnesty International

“The pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the unspeakable horrors of conflicts, and their ramifications across the region have made it more difficult for those experiencing domestic violence to report it. It’s also now more difficult to flee unsafe situations, access shelters and other critical support services, obtain protection orders (if at all available) or rely on effective legal remedies.”

Promotion of ‘traditional values’ undermines protections for survivors

According to recent data from the World Health Organization, around 20% of women in Eastern Europe and 18% of women in Central Asia have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. At the same time, most countries in the region have failed to take a stance against such violence or take effective steps to protect women’s rights.

Recent years have seen protections of the rights of women and girls, including those who are survivors of domestic violence, eroded across the globe, as exemplified by the US Supreme Court’s decision to roll back abortion rights and Turkey’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention). Many governments in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have followed this general trend.

“Governments across Eastern Europe and Central Asia are increasingly promoting ‘traditional values’ and equating the protection of gender equality and women’s rights with a loss of cultural and traditional identity, as part of efforts to secure broader support for their anti-human rights agenda. As a result, patriarchal attitudes, misogyny and homophobia have not only become more entrenched, but have flourished,” said Natalia Nozadze.

Governments across Eastern Europe and Central Asia are increasingly promoting ‘traditional values’ and equating the protection of gender equality and women’s rights with a loss of cultural and traditional identity.

Natalia Nozadze, Eastern Europe and Central Asia Researcher, Amnesty International

The Russian authorities offer a prominent example, having introduced state-sponsored homophobia and an unrelenting crackdown on human rights and women’s rights. In 2017, the Russian parliament even decriminalized some forms of domestic violence. The constitutional amendments adopted in 2020 promoted “protection of the family” and “protection of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.”

Similarly, in 2017 Kazakhstan decriminalized “intentional infliction of minor injury” and “battery”, while also weakening protections for survivors of domestic violence. In both Russia and Kazakhstan, activists reported a spike in cases of domestic violence following decriminalization.

Belarus considered a draft law on domestic violence yet rejected it in October 2018 after President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said it was against “Belarusian, Slavic traditions” and added that a “good belting could sometimes be useful” in domestic settings. Belarusian women are discouraged from reporting domestic violence because doing so may trigger a process that would see their family entered into a “social risk” register, which could result in the loss of parental rights and the institutionalization of their children.

Other leaders, including President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, in 2019, openly supported “a state based on traditional values” as opposed to a society that “does not distinguish between men and women.” Azerbaijan continues to force the survivors of domestic violence to go through mandatory mediation with their abusers for the “resumption of family affairs.”

Legal shortcomings, misguided approaches

Only three countries in the region, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, are state parties to the Istanbul Convention, while these same three and Kyrgyzstan have directly criminalized domestic violence. While most countries in the region have made some progress by adopting or reforming their laws to address domestic violence, the region lacks effective protection and support mechanisms for survivors of domestic violence as existing laws and policies remain inadequate.

A pervasive, deeply traditionalist approach of family mediation presents one of the main obstacles to offering greater protection to survivors. In many countries, preservation of “family unity” is seen as a bigger priority for the state than effectively protecting the rights of survivors. In practice, this often leads to survivors being coerced into staying with the abuser.

In Uzbekistan, local officials have been tasked with “strengthening family relationships and opposing various harmful influences alien to the national mentality.” For the authorities in Armenia and Azerbaijan, achieving family reconciliation in situations of domestic violence is their primary goal. In Kazakhstan, legal proceedings against an abuser may be terminated in case of reconciliation. In Russia and Tajikistan, survivors of violence bear the burden of proving that they have suffered harm — police and prosecutors generally will not assist them in this task.

Even in countries where domestic violence is criminalized, burdensome legal hurdles often leave survivors without effective protection or access to justice. In Ukraine, domestic violence meets the threshold of a criminal offence only if it has been officially documented as “systematic,” which means the perpetrator must have faced administrative proceedings for domestic abuse on at least three separate occasions.

Lack of supporting infrastructure

Across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, access to protection and information for survivors of domestic violence remains wholly inadequate. None of the countries in the region come close to achieving the minimum standards established by the Council of Europe, which require one available space in a shelter for every 10,000 people.

In many countries in the region, the authorities have practically refused to meet their obligation to set-up institutions to support survivors. Instead, shelters are often run and supported financially by non-profit organizations. In Russia, there are only 14 state-run shelters for women, despite a population of 146 million. In Ukraine, prior to Russia’s invasion, there were only 33 shelters nationwide for a population of around 42 million. As a result of the war, many domestic violence shelters are now used to house survivors of war.

Women also experience significant difficulties in accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare services in many countries. In Central Asia, three out of every five women reported difficulty accessing such services.

Access to abortion also deteriorated catastrophically during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Russia, a women’s rights group reported that, at the height of the pandemic in April 2020, only three of 44 hospitals in Moscow that they contacted were ready to provide non-emergency abortion services.

Further support for survivors of violence crucial

All countries in the region must criminalize domestic violence as a matter of urgency, remove the burden of proof from survivors, and abandon policies requiring mandatory mediation and reconciliation for the sake of family preservation. The authorities must also provide adequate resources to protection and support services, including shelters, and ensure that sexual and reproductive health services remain available and accessible.

It is absolutely crucial that protection and empowerment of women play a central role in public health policies, yet for many countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, this ideal remains an entirely unachieved goal.

Natalia Nozadze, Eastern Europe and Central Asia Researcher, Amnesty International

“It is absolutely crucial that protection and empowerment of women play a central role in public health policies, yet for many countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, this ideal remains an entirely unachieved goal. But there is a tool for establishing an effective and comprehensive legal framework on domestic violence — the ground-breaking Istanbul Convention. It is open to Belarus, Russia and countries in Central Asia, along with those within the Council of Europe,” said Natalia Nozadze.

“Nonetheless any institutional changes will be feeble unless governments address the surge in ‘traditional’ narratives, which continue to roll back women’s rights. Instead of exploiting these attitudes for political gain, governments in the region should place women’s rights at the centre of their policies.”