Violence against Women in Post-Soviet States: Foreign Assistance Makes a Difference

Janet Elise Johnson, Postdoctral Fellow, Havighurst Center for Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies, Miami University; and Dianne Post, former Gender Specialist, American Bar Association Central and East European Law Institute, Moscow

Since the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing, it has become common wisdom that violence against women--sexual and domestic violence as well as sex trafficking--is one of the decisive obstacles to women's realization of their potential as economic and political citizens. The education and empowerment of women is now clearly understood to be instrumental for addressing world population growth. Likewise, the eradication of violence against women serves not only to protect women's fundamental rights to live free from bodily harm, but also to facilitate women's involvement in economic growth and development.


Since post-Soviet governments do not collect statistics on domestic violence and the statistics on rape are not credible, the evidence of violence against women is imperfect. Dead bodies are irrefutable evidence: in the 1990s, women in Russia were at least 2.5 times more likely to be killed by their intimates than women in the U.S. where this kind of murder is already unusually high. This problem is not isolated to Russia. In Armenia, a researcher estimates that 30 percent of all murders from 1988-98 were domestic violence murders committed by men. The costs of this violence are astronomical. Studies estimate that domestic violence costs hundreds of millions of dollars in health care in the U.S., $1,633 for every abused person. A National Institute of Justice study estimated that domestic violence accounts for almost 15 percent of total crime costs--$67 billion per year. Another study found that American employees miss 175,000 days per year of paid work due to domestic violence plus substantial other indirect costs to society such as interrupted education or job training and reduced productivity as well as the exposure of children to violence in their own homes.


In addition to these quantifiable costs to post-Soviet development, the use of rape as a weapon of the Bosnian war and the militant repression of women under the Taliban illustrates that in this increasingly global world, preventing ethnic and gender-related violence can be in our national interest. Feminist political theories are beginning to show how internal gender-related violence is linked to external violence, that societies in which men are allowed to inflict violence on women may be more prone to militarism, radicalism, and terrorism.


Reports from Human Rights Watch and the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights--as well as articles by the authors--reveal how ineffective and unjust the ways are in which the post-Soviet criminal justice system considers violence against women. Although laws exist to prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault, police often ignore calls from women who wish to report violence by their intimate partners and refuse to accept rape complaints. The most frequent response when police respond to domestic violence is to encourage the woman to return to the abuser even though he has not been penalized. When complaints are filed, prosecutors and judges often blame women or argue that rape and domestic violence are only "family" problems and thus outside of their jurisdiction. While obstacles--corruption, abuse of coercive powers, and financial difficulties--exist to the functioning of post-Soviet criminal justice systems, none justify the refusal of police, prosecutors, and judges to deal properly with violence against women. This reluctance to intervene in domestic and sexual violence is a problem with which the American criminal justice system has been struggling for the last two decades.


In Russia, foreign assistance over the last decade has been tremendously helpful in raising awareness about this reluctance of the criminal justice system to respond to violence against women. Specifically, foreign assistance has facilitated these accomplishments in Russia:


The raising of the issue of domestic violence onto the national agenda in draft legislation in the State Duma, 1993-97, and well-reasoned criticism from Western-supported women's organizations when it became apparent that the bill would not actually help women. Similarly, a bill on sex trafficking was introduced into the State Duma in 1999. While legislation has not passed, these issues have been named and discussed in contrast to pervasive Soviet silence.

The development of a critical mass of 60-80 crisis centers across Russia that provide urgently needed medical and legal information to women victims of violence. From 1999-2001, these organizations were funded by $600,000 from USAID and distributed as seed grants through IREX. These organizations link together through umbrella organizations and the internet to reduce isolation.

Constant pressure from scholars and legal experts trained in Western theories of violence against women to keep women's rights central. This pressure has come from gender studies centers across Russia, Western organizations such as ABA-CEELI and Women, Law, & Development, and law school clinics that provide legal services to low-income people. The impetus to create the clinics was to give students some practical experience and to help provide legal services for low-income people. The clinics often take on controversial issues thus helping foster new thinking about violence against women among some lawyers, judges, police, and prosecutors as well as a new generation of law students.

On the local and regional level, there have been changes in police, prosecutor, and judicial training and implementation of the laws regarding violence against women as well as local campaigns for a more transparent and accountable government.

"Social advocates" have been trained to deliver legal services to the poor in regions. These "social advocates" have brought numerous cases against improper government behavior and assisted hundreds of poor people in securing their legal rights.

Foreign assistance has and can make a great difference in elevating the issue of violence against women to the political agenda. Only by eliminating such violence will women be able to participate fully and freely in the economic and social development necessary to move the former Soviet countries into the global economic network. The majority of small businesses opening in the U.S. are women-owned and women-owned businesses have a better track record of success. This phenomenon can be duplicated in other countries but the issue of violence against women must be dealt with first.

Obstacles and Recommendations

Despite these successes, there are remaining obstacles and recommendations to deal with them:

  • The women's NGOs are not sustainable. Foreign assistance has not provided enough information on how shelters and other NGOs raise money from philanthropy, fundraisers, and small businesses. Tax laws should encourage businesses to make charitable contributions, ensure that NGOs are not taxed for grant monies, and allow NGOs to earn money from profit-making operations without being taxed.

  • Foreign assistance has focused on technological advances and service provision as opposed to social advocacy. While publication of information on the internet can be helpful in linking the NGOs together and the provision of social services to victims of violence is crucial, in the long run, it is social change that is required for violence against women to be taken seriously. Grant money should be available for training additional "social advocates" throughout the country relying on those already doing the work.

  • Foreign assistance has encouraged individual NGO development, but not the development of a social movement challenging violence against women. Only a broad-based public policy movement can change the culture of violence rather than simply putting "band-aids" on the wounded. To foster that broad-based movement, funding should be available for advocacy training on how the government works, access points, strategies for change, transparency, and accountability. Funding should also be available to train citizens how to organize and fund such a broad-based movement.
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