“INGI. Crisis Centre for Women,” an NGO that has been active in St. Petersburg for 30 years offering assistance to women affected by various types of gender-based violence. In her interview with Legal Dialogue, the Centre’s psychologist Anastasia Maskaeva speaks about their clients’ most common problems and concerns, the importance of providing “one-stop-shop” assistance, and why helping the victim is more essential than punishing the abuser.
About the Centre’s projects
The Crisis Centre provides a range of services, including a helpline open seven days a week. Psychological support can be accessed every day, and legal counselling on Saturdays via mail and by telephone. After an initial session with a woman, we can offer her up to five consultations with a psychologist free of charge.
Another service we provide is P.O.L.I.N.A, a legal advice and advocacy platform with a collection of guides concerning partner violence, physical abuse, threats, sexualised violence, and related issues such as custody disputes and divorce. A team of lawyers working with us have compiled these step-by-step guides highlighting the most important things to observe and do. Most sections on the platform also provide downloadable templates for legal paperwork which can be filled out, checked by our lawyer if needed, and filed with the relevant authority. This kind of practical help can benefit an enormous number of women.
Callers to our helpline often report death threats, physical violence and blackmail. Visibility matters: after we make a comment to a major media outlet, e.g. about stalking, we start getting more calls about it to our helpline. Indeed, the more is published in mass media about various types of violence and abuse, the more likely are women to recognize certain situations as such and contact us about them.
We have recently examined our platform’s statistics and found the most requested guides to be about rape, death threats and beatings.
We have been getting more calls about early signs of psychological abuse. An increasing number of callers contact us not only when abuse has seriously affected their health, but at earlier stages when they are still in doubt before the actual physical violence has occurred.
About the programme for women living with HIV
We work to counter all forms of gender-based discrimination. A health condition can create additional vulnerability for a person, and the more vulnerable they have, the harder it is for them to find and get help. When a woman is affected by HIV, there is usually a fear of aggression, discrimination and harsh judgment.
Before launching this project, we conducted an internal survey among the Crisis Centre’s psychologists. We found that most of them had counselled people on HIV-related matters. However, callers never mentioned HIV early on in the session; rather, they asked for advice on a different problem and HIV eventually came up in the conversation. So much of a stressor HIV can be that a woman hesitates to mention it even to a counsellor as she is not sure how they would react.
A caller may be concerned, e.g. about her partner’s threat to disclose her HIV-positive status to colleagues at work. Such threats can be very real… Some women stay with abusive partner fearing that otherwise he would disclose her HIV status – or perhaps because “he accepts me with my diagnosis but no one else will.” Her partner may threaten her, “No one else will ever want you.”
By looking at the WHO statistics, one can see strong links between HIV and gender-based violence, and women who have experienced violence are more likely to contract HIV.
There are also stereotypes about HIV, e.g. that it only affects persons of a certain “wrong” lifestyle. To avoid perpetuating the language of stigma and hatred, such people are referred to as key populations. Women can be at risk for HIV in the context of gender-based violence and sexualised violence in intimate relationships.
When we counsel women who have survived rape, we tell them about post-exposure prophylaxis of HIV and give contacts of providers. There is also a step-by-step guide on our website on what to do and where to access help.
About the situation with HIV criminalisation in Russia
There is still criminal liability in Russia for transmitting HIV to a partner who has not been warned about the diagnosis. The criminal liability was introduced in 1996, just ten years after the first case of HIV was diagnosed in Russia, when the disease was still perceived as totally new, unknown and fatal. The legislators then established a punishment of up to eight years in prison for giving someone HIV.
But today we know so much more about HIV. We know that proper treatment can bring the viral load down to undetectable levels with zero risk of infecting a sexual partner. However, the law remains the same as before, when no effective treatment was available. Today, this provision amounts to unfair discrimination of people living with HIV who are forced to disclose their diagnosis every time to avoid criminal liability – even when they cannot transmit the virus to another person.
This can create additional vulnerability for HIV-positive women and put them at risk of violence in intimate relations, e.g. when a controlling partner interferes with their HIV treatment. As far as this particular law is concerned, there are many other diseases with no criminal liability for transmission.
Discrimination against HIV-positive people in employment
Our lawyers advise on such matters as well. We make it a point to offer one-stop-shop type of service to clients who are often overwhelmed by trying to cope with the crisis they are facing. We are a low-threshold service and refer clients who need further assistance to other specialists. But we know that early in a crisis, it is essential to be able to access all help and support in one place.
About ‘HIV dissidents’
An abusive partner may prohibit a woman from taking her medicines. If she is financially dependent, this amounts to economic violence, as she cannot buy her medicines because the partner controls her spending. Some partners insist on accompanying a woman to her ob/gyn or other healthcare provider to control what is going on during her medical appointments. Control, violence and pressure in relationships can take various forms, but all of them prevent women from taking care of their health and sometimes pose a threat to life. More generally, threat to life is often underestimated in a situation of violence.
Our priority is to take care of a woman’s needs right here and now. We partner up with friendly ob/gyn clinics which agree to provide free of charge consultations to our clients facing a situation of violence. When a woman is unable to care for her health because her partner is always around, controlling or stalking her, then her physical safety is our priority, and we try to accommodate her either in a state-run shelter or in a safe apartment. If for some reason neither is available, we solicit temporary accommodation from hotels to make sure that the woman has a safe place to stay while considering her options and next steps.
The first thing for us is to assess the risks: what is the biggest threat right now? What can be done to take care of the woman’s most pressing needs?
Why helping the victim is it more important than punishing the abuser
We can discuss what can be done and when to bring the abuser to justice, if that is what the woman wants to do. But when she first contacts us, we need to ask her when was the last time she ate anything. Situations can vary widely, but the first step is usually to find out how a woman is feeling, whether she is safe, and then suggest a plan of action; but we do not have a one-size-fits-all algorithm.
We must understand that a woman who has experienced violence should not be forced to deal with anything that is not a priority for her at the moment. In fact, guidelines for healthcare providers warn them against trying to pressure a survivor of abuse into filing a formal complaint.
Therefore, we offer assistance with whatever needs she may have at the moment and educate her about the options available for taking care of her wellbeing and her rights. Then, depending on her choice, we help the woman with implementing her plan.