The Situation of Women in Russia’s North Caucasus Republics
The problems of women’s rights and violence against women in Russia have increasingly come to the attention of lawyers, researchers and human rights defenders. On one hand, Russia has a legal framework in place — which is admittedly far from perfect — for protecting women’s rights. Yet on the other hand, enforcement has been flawed. The Russian Constitution stipulates fundamental human rights and civil liberties, protects the rights of women and is generally consistent with international legal standards. While Russia has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, which was adopted on 18 December 1979 and came into effect on September 3 1981), it is not party to the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention). The official explanation offered by the Russian Ministry of Justice is that the “some of its provisions are not aligned with the country’s principal approaches to the protection and promotion of traditional moral values and the framework for the state family policy of the Russian Federation to the year 2025.”
Russia’s eighth periodic report submitted in 2014 to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women indicates that “provisions banning discrimination are contained in virtually all sector statutes.”According to paragraph 97 of the report [commenting on paragraph 22 of the Committee’s previous concluding observations], “the number of crimes involving violence against women is trending downward. There were 191,200 such crimes in 2010 and 165,800 in 2013. With each report of the violation of the rights and legal interests of a woman, law enforcement authorities conduct appropriate investigations. To prevent such crimes, the police work to identify persons who commit such violations in the context of family and domestic relations, chronic alcoholics and disturbed persons who are a direct danger to those around them. Timely preventive measures are taken with that category of individuals.” In fact, the terminology used in the periodic report illustrates the government’s superficial understanding of the problems of violence against women and gender-based discrimination in Russia. The recent changes in Russia’s criminal and administrative law indicate a clear trend towards the justification of violence against women.
Reports concerning the status of women in the North Caucasus require special attention. Russia’s periodic report to the CEDAW Committee, cited above, mentions the situation in the North Caucasus, in particular in the Chechen Republic, highlighting positive changes in the region: “[A] commission on women’s affairs has been active in the Chechen Republic since 2003, and its work includes elevating the role of women in the Chechen Republic and actively participating in the restoration of Chechnya and bringing life back to normal.” But in practice, there is another active commission in Chechnya, namely the Commission on Family Reconciliation under the patronage of the Chechen President and Government Administration’s Department for Relations with Non-governmental and Religious Organizations. The main objective of this Commission is to return women to their husbands.
A major barrier to addressing the issues is “a lack of adequate information on what is really going on due to a strict taboo in the Chechen culture on any discussion of relations between men and women, childbirth out of wedlock and rape, not to mention issues faced by the LGBT community,” according to the Memorial Human Rights Center and the Civic Assistance Committee.
According to findings from a study by the Heinrich Boell Foundation Life and the Status of Women in the North Caucasus published in 2015, of all female respondents surveyed in the Chechen Republic, “11% indicated that they are sometimes subject to beatings, 28% get occasionally slapped and 8% said that they had been raped or forced to have sex… In Dagestan, … 22% of women were sometimes forced to endure insults, criticism of their appearance, manners and intelligence… Slapping or pushing have been experienced by 21% of the respondents. In 12% of the cases, women had to endure beatings… Although physical violence is experienced by a smaller percentage of women in Kabardino-Balkaria than in Dagestan and Chechnya, beatings are not absent there. 7% reported that they get sometimes slapped or pushed by their husbands, 6% had suffered at least once from serious physical violence, such as being punched or hit with an object, and 2% of respondents said they had been threatened with weapons or with serious injury… [In Ingushetia,], 14% of the respondents said that they had been slapped, pushed or kicked by their husband at least once. The husbands of 5% of women had threatened to kidnap or take away their children … [In Chechnya,] 27% of women said they were force married under parents’ pressure, while in the oldest age group (61+) the percentage of such answers was even higher at more than 40%!”
The section “On the situation of women in the Chechen Republic… again” of the Memorial Human Rights Center and the Civic Assistance Committee’s Chechens in Russia report details the situation of women and documents some of the first known cases of persecution based on sexual orientation in Chechnya. In 2014, the authors of the report found the following:
However, it would be totally wrong to assume that Chechnya is the only place where women face violence and persecution. So, according to findings of the Russian Justice Initiative (RJI) published in 2016, female genital mutilation (FGM) performed on very young girls is a common and persistent practice in Dagestan. A recent finding confirms the prevalence of this harmful practice in the Russian Federation: a multidisciplinary health clinic in Moscow offered clitorectomy on girls aged 12 and younger. The RJI study also reveals that in most cases, genital mutilation is performed on female children before the age of three and in rare cases of up to 12 years old, and the decision is usually made by the girl’s mother or maternal relatives (grandmother, aunts).
Reports published by human rights groups and initiatives as well as field experience of recognized experts working in the region indicate several factors contributing to the disastrous situation with women’s rights in Chechnya. One such factor is ethnic traditions in which kinship and clan loyalty are of particular importance. Another factor, at least as significant, is the government’s position concerning the situation in the North Caucasus and the impunity of law enforcement officers for using violence. According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, “Between 2013 and 2018, complaints were received about the use of torture by investigative officers in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria.” In the Chechen Republic, according to some reports, use of violence and fabrication of evidence in criminal cases are allowed if “there is even the slightest likelihood of [suspects belonging to] Wahhabis.” There were reports of such practices affecting LGBT+ people in Chechnya in 2017 and human rights defenders in 2018.
These circumstances could not but have negative consequences for the situation of women. In particular, the decision-making on how to deal with “family honor” has been shifted from a family or clan, where there was still an opportunity to intervene and appeal to human rights protection mechanisms, to the government and law enforcement agencies acting at their own discretion. A notorious example of the use of power by a law enforcement officer for personal ends in violation of a woman’s rights is the story of 17-year-old Chechen Kheda Goilabiyeva reported in April 2015 by Novaya Gazeta. Nozhai-Yurt police chief Nazhud Guchigov took the underage Kheda as his second wife against her and her parents’ will. Despite wide publicity, protests of Kheda’s fellow villagers and a legal ban on bride kidnapping and underage marriage in Chechnya, the wedding was held with the support of Ramzan Kadyrov.
Another widely reported story was that of Louisa Dudurkayeva who secretly fled Chechnya after her photos were posted on social media. The law enforcement authorities of Belarus were instrumental in detaining Louisa, and the family brought her back home. Once back in Chechnya, the young woman and her parents were heldat a police department in Argun for about 24 hours.
According to Russia’s eighth periodic report, cited above, “The activities of Chechen Republic authorities, who devote a great deal of attention to the status of women in Chechen society and to work with the family, could serve as an example of the eradication of obsolete customs. Such activities involve, primarily, a reduction in the number of divorces in young families and overcoming outmoded traditions such as bride abduction (kidnapping). Religious leaders and public organizations have been recruited for that work. Bride abduction contravenes Islam, Russian law and Chechen traditions. Work is also under way in the Republic to eliminate phenomena such as the ‘blood feud’.”
However, statements suggesting any progress with women’s rights in the Chechen Republic raise serious doubts, particularly in the light of the following two publications on this topic in Russia: Killed by Gossip: “Honor Killings” of Women in the North Caucasus and Violence against Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Women in the North Caucasus (Russian Federation). Report on the results of qualitative research. Both documents were published in late 2018. They reveal that the actual situation is the opposite of that described by the Russian authorities. In Chechnya, for example, marriage is religious in nature, and the effect of Russian family law is limited in the North Caucasus in general. A religious marriage certificate indicates the amount of kalym paid for the bride, illustrating extreme objectification of women. Interviews with Chechen residents also reveal practices such as violent religious “treatments,” beatings and forced confinement.
The findings above make it obvious that no effort has been made to prevent violence against women in the Chechen Republic and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. According to Aida Mirmaksumova, head of the Fathers and Daughters project, “Nobody collects official statistics concerning victims of domestic violence,” while “by far not every woman” would ask project volunteers for help. Very often, the volunteers learn about domestic violence incidents from lawyers, psychologists, acquaintances or social networks.
In Russia, violence against women is an offence subject to private prosecution — meaning that the victim needs to initiate criminal proceedings, collect the required paperwork, present evidence and advance her case in court. This situation is a major barrier that interferes with women’s right to protection.
Since the role of adats (traditional norms practiced by people of the Caucasus and Central Asia and other Muslims) is not less but sometimes even greater than that of Russian law in the North Caucasus, matters related to violence against women are usually treated outside of the legal system. According to the report Killed by Gossip cited above, “The concept of ‘honor killing’ does not exist in national law. There exists only the general offence contained in Article 105 of the Russian Criminal Code, ‘murder’.” The report also notes the following trends:
As for court proceedings, only 14 (42.4%) of the 33 cases identified and analyzed by the RJI reached court; the defendants were found guilty in 13 cases and acquitted in one case.
In addition to the above, even if victims insist upon their rights, criminal proceedings can still be dropped pursuant to article 446.2 of the Russian Criminal Procedure Code either in the courtroom or out of court. The court, acting on its own initiative or in response to a prosecutor’s motion, may terminate a criminal case or impose a fine as judicial punishment even for repeat abusers who have assaulted the victim before.
Early Steps towards International Protection
After failing to find protection from the authorities — or even facing threats from them — some women attempt to escape not only from their home republics but also from Russia. Women from the Chechen Republic are among the most vulnerable. Reports from Chechnya suggest that they might be persecuted not only by their relatives but also by the law enforcement agencies. According to human rights organizations (in particular, the Memorial Human Rights Center), reasons for persecution by the authorities can include having a male relative accused of Wahhabism, being suspected of “indecent behavior,” having fled from relatives (father, husband or brother), refusing to give up her child to the child’s father, and being suspected of homosexuality or bisexuality or of any other behavior disapproved of in today’s Chechnya. The information above has been confirmed by interviews with women seeking asylum in Poland.
A significant number of refugees from the North Caucasus attempt to flee to Poland by crossing the border from Belarus. Earlier articles covered the situation at the border crossing between Belarus and Poland in greater detail. Here, let us highlight the fact that during the initial interview, refugees must state their reasons for seeking international protection. It would be unrealistic to assume that a woman in need of help and protection from persecution on grounds such as rape, custody battles, or sexual orientation, will openly share the true reasons in front of her compatriots. Knowing that her chances of crossing the border are slim, she would expect to be forced to go back to Belarus or Russia where family members or law enforcement agents can easily find her. In Belarus, the only place where women can access support is the Refugee Assistance Mission in Brest run by the Human Constanta NGO. In July 2017 alone, Human Constanta lodged four complaints with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) concerning the treatment of asylum seekers by Polish border guards.
The psychological state of asylum-seekers, especially women fleeing violence, is rarely addressed during the asylum process. However, initial interviews with these women often require specialist knowledge and skills of working with abuse victims.
CPPHN is the only NGO that visits the border crossing in Terespol regularly. CPPHN representatives appear there once a month as a rule but may also drop by unannounced. The role of CPPHN in Terespol is linked to its status of UNHCR’s executive partner in Poland and governed by the terms and conditions of the agreement between the Chief of the Border Guard and the regional representative for UNHCR in Central Europe.
Life of Women from North Caucasus Seeking International Protection in Poland
It is difficult to find official information in public sources regarding the number of women from the North Caucasus who have sought or have been granted asylum in Poland. According to the annual summary statistics published by the Polish Office for Foreigners, in 2017, a total of 1,771 women with Russian citizenship applied for asylum in Poland. Men and women with Russian citizenship account for 69.9% of all persons having sought asylum in Poland. In 2017, 14,924 women (and 15,559 men) were refused entry to Poland by the Border Guard Office Commander. In the same year, 992 women (and 1,157 men) were ordered by Polish courts to go back to Russia. Just five women from Russia were allowed by courts of first and second instance to stay in Poland.
In 2017, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation of the rule of law and democracy in Poland in which, inter alia, called the Polish government to halt summary returns to Belarus as well as to comply with the binding interim orders of the ECtHR and to ensure full access to the asylum procedure in line with international obligations and EU law.
Positive judgments by Polish courts in favor of asylum-seekers have been infrequent, but some of them can be described as strategic. Such was the case of a woman who fled from Dagestan and applied for asylum in Poland in 2005. She had stated that she was a victim of domestic violence and of gang rape perpetrated by her husband’s colleagues, and that she had to flee the country with her young son, fearing for her life. Court proceedings into her case lasted from 2006 to 2008. Administrative courts of the first and second instance (WSA) denied her asylum on the following grounds: “The authorities had rightly found that the mere fact of having experienced domestic violence in Dagestan did not make the applicant eligible for refugee status. In the court’s opinion, violence had to fall under one of the five Convention criteria: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and all available judicial procedures in the country of origin should have been exhausted. The applicant had not sought help from the authorities of her country of origin. The threat that she perceives coming from her husband and his friends does not provide sufficient grounds for being granted international protection. Rape and various forms of intimidation are criminal acts and do not bear the hallmarks of persecution by state authorities within the meaning of the Geneva Convention” (from the WSA judgment).
But it is clear from the information presented above and confirmed by numerous reports of human rights NGOs in Russia that approaching the Russian law enforcement authorities for protection would not have ensured the woman’s safety but could instead expose her to even greater risks. However, the 2008 judgment by the Supreme Administrative Court was in favor of the applicant and sustained her appeal against the lower courts’ decision. The higher court stated that “rape, beatings and ill-treatment constitute gender-based persecution; in the present case, there are no findings regarding the situation of women in Dagestan, and the question of whether women may constitute a particular social group within the meaning of the Geneva Convention has not been sufficiently examined; the aspect such as a lack of protection from the state should not always be understood as an absolute obligation to exhaust the domestic remedies available to the person; the fact that the applicant did not apply to the state authorities for help cannot be used as an argument for refusing her refugee status. It is important to determine whether the applicant would have received the state’s protection had she requested it. The authorities should have made a more accurate assessment of the risks a victim of domestic violence may face by approaching the authorities in Dagestan.” The court ordered the administrative authorities to reconsider the case.
In 2015, the Polish Office for Foreigners decided to grant additional protection in Poland to a woman from Chechnya. She was found to be a victim of cruel physical and psychological violence perpetrated by her husband and his family, and her deportation to Russia was stalled. Following a psychiatric assessment, the applicant was removed from a guarded refugee center and eventually granted a positive decision stating that “the applicant’s return to the country of origin may put her at risk of serious harm due to degrading treatment by private individuals (spouse and relatives), but their actions can also be attributed to the authorities of the country of origin, since they cannot or would not protect her from such actions […]. Remedies available for women in situations similar to that of the applicant are ineffective and fail to provide real and long-lasting protection against serious harm […]. Therefore, the fact that the applicant did not seek protection from the authorities of her country of origin does not change the above qualification […].”
Despite the aforementioned examples, most asylum decisions are negative. One of the reasons often given for refusal of asylum is that the applicant can find a safe place to stay in Russia outside of the North Caucasus.
Applicants wait for first-instance court decisions in special guarded centers for refugees or centers for foreigners, receiving food and a money allowance. Staying there means living side by side with their compatriots and facing much higher risks of being discovered and identified than outside of the center in the Polish territory. Interviews with residents of such centers in Warsaw reveal that women staying there face multiple challenges. First, they tend to experience extremely negative psycho-emotional states from knowing that they are still being sought by relatives or law-enforcement agents. Second, they find it extremely difficult to get a job. Third, some women have reported facing xenophobia while in Poland.
In recent years, Poland has become one of Europe’s most politically conservative countries. Having come into power, the Law and Justice party and its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski have not only opposed the admission of refugees from the Middle East but also sought to impose an absolute ban on abortions, and to restrict media freedom. Although Poland has ratified all major international conventions, treaties and 21 protocols concerning refugees, the real situation of asylum seekers in Poland is not much different from their situation in Russia.
Based on our analysis of the legal situation for women from the North Caucasus seeking asylum in Poland, we conclude the following:
Unfortunately, any real improvement in the current situation in the North Caucasus, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Poland is impossible without major structural and strategic changes at a high political level. But so far, no trends towards a stronger focus on human rights values are in sight.