By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Social media went into overdrive this week when a photo of newly-appointed US President Donald Trump signed anti-abortion legislation at his desk, surrounded by a group of male staff.
Many believe the stroke of Trump’s pen will result in higher numbers of unsafe back yard abortions, putting more women at risk of health problems or even their lives.
Trump’s move comes as Russia looks set to pass legislation that will decriminalise many acts of domestic violence.
It seems hard to justify the moves in the context of a world-wide epidemic of violence against women – a problem we are becoming uncomfortably familiar with. Research suggests that more than one-third of women have experienced physical and / or sexual violence at the hands of their current or former partners at some point in their lives.
Both decisions suggest that even after all these years of having women’s rights on the political agenda, they are not permanently guaranteed and can be removed on a political whim.
And while we continue to have a severe imbalance of men in positions of political power, there seems to be nonchalance surrounding these impactful decisions.
The Russian Parliament has just passed the second reading of its controversial bill on domestic violence.
From this point, there will be no more opportunities to amend the bill. It will have a third reading in the State Duma (lower house), before moving to the upper house of parliament for ratification, and then onto the desk of Vladimir Putin for official sign off.
Essentially, the amendment to the criminal code treats a first domestic battery as an administrative matter. It will therefore carry no criminal conviction. It will be punishable by a maximum penalty of a $500 fine, or up to 120 hours of community service or 15 days in prison.
If the law comes into operation, as it appears it will, only serious injuries like broken bones would lead to criminal charges, and only then if they can be proven to be ‘intentional’.
The proposed law was supported by an overwhelming majority in Russia, with those in favour arguing it justifiably keeps the state from entering the family domain.
But opponents are fearful that it removes the limited protections that women currently have from family violence in Russia. Others have branded it a ‘step back to medieval times’ and a licence for violent behaviour behind closed doors.
One woman remarked: “Lawmakers recognise violence as a norm of family life.” That sentiment was echoed in a state-run opinion poll which ran earlier this month and found that 19 percent of Russians believed that “it can be acceptable” to hit one’s wife, husband or child “in certain circumstances.”
Researchers point out that, like many other countries, Russia has a serious problem with domestic violence, citing data which suggests that 40 percent of all grave violent crimes are committed in the familial context.
In 2013, more than 9,000 women died as a result of criminal assaults and more than 11,000 were badly injured. In 2014, more than 25 percent of all murders were committed in families.
Meanwhile In America…
Commentators say the US president has reinstated a ‘gag’ order, which essentially bans US-funded groups around the world from providing information about abortion.
It was a piece of legislation introduced by the Regan administration in 1984, and is regularly contested and debated every time a new President enters the White House.
Trump, who has vigorously campaigned on a ‘pro-life’ stance, signed the order which places heavy restrictions on foreign non-governmental organisations by prohibiting them from paying and distributing contraceptives as well as from providing abortion services, information, counselling or referrals – even if the organisation uses their own funds to do so. Organisations are also barred from engaging in advocacy to promote abortion.
Marie Stopes International estimates that without alternative funding, the loss of their services during Trump’s first term could result in 6.5 million unintended pregnancies, 2.1 million unsafe abortions and 21,700 maternal deaths.
The good news, however, is that the Netherlands has announced it will fill the gap. The Dutch Government is planning to launch an international fund to finance access to birth control and abortion in developing countries, in the wake of the Trump decision.
But for the women, men and children in Russia who are victims of domestic violence, there is no clear counter-measure on the horizon.
As the experts say, even before this new legislation was drafted, domestic violence was vastly under-reported right across the nation. This new law will make the situation worse, as it will send a message that it is acceptable to engage in such conduct.