Anna Rivina, the Director of the center nasiliu.net (“No to Violence”), talked to Russians Who Care about the scale of gender-based violence and discrimination in Russia, and what her organization is doing to tackle this problem.
Gender discrimination is a worldwide problem. What are the unique characteristics of this problem in Russia?
Russian laws have a number of blatantly gender discriminatory norms, for example, there is a list of professions prohibited for women. We also don’t have a specific law against gender-based violence, even though there is a proven relation between gender and the frequency of violence.
On the other hand, the Soviet Union was one of the first countries to declare equality of men and women. It is still reflected in the Russian Constitution and in the Family Code [the primary source of family law in Russia], and in other legislative codes. Unfortunately, we have a huge gap between de-jure and de-facto.
In soviet times, women were given an opportunity to work but weren’t freed from their responsibility to manage households (the so-called “second shift”). But in Soviet society, a woman was considered an equal citizen. Since the Soviet Union dissolved and the Russian Federation was created, this idea of the “special role” or “predestination” of a woman became very popular. This conservative turn can be seen in the rhetoric of government officials and religious clerics. Women are prohibited from some professions because our state views a woman only as a mother. But a woman and mother are not synonymous. In addition, Russian women have to follow exceptionally demanding standards of beauty, they are obliged to “bring joy” to men’s gaze.
I think this conservative outlook became popular among Russian women because they were sick of the second shift. So when we rolled back and suggested women do just one, many of them agreed because it’s hard to live with all of those demands. But if we applied a consistent effort to make sure both partners worked while splitting domestic responsibilities, women could do both. However, currently, the standard is that a man has to put a nail into a wall once a year, and a woman has to do laundry, cook, clean, help with children's homework, buy groceries, and more.
Of course, among more educated, wealthy, and progressive people equal partnerships exist, when a man is not ashamed to take a walk with a child. In such a relationship both people share responsibilities, and there is more space for both people to realize their potential.
What are the implications of this “special role” of women for domestic violence?
We can start with economic abuse and financial dependence. Russia is one of the top countries by the number of divorces, and when men find new families they often stop paying alimony. So, at first, a man insists that a woman sits at home, doesn’t work and takes care of children, but when he leaves, she ends up without any work experience and unable to compete in the labor market.
Economic abuse also means that women often lack their own resources to have freedom of choice and the opportunity to leave the relationships when faced with violence. Fueling that is the fact that in Russian society if a woman is alone it means she is a loser or has a defect. Sometimes women choose to be in terrible relationships rather than alone.
Let’s talk a bit about your organization, nasiliu.net (“No to violence”). Who do you help and why?
People who come to us, they are usually women who encountered physical abuse. Our main goal is to encourage women who suffered from such relationships to start believing in themselves once again. For long periods of time they are not only abused, they are told they are worthless, they are nothing.
This is a consequence of how the world perceives a woman. All around the world, a woman is viewed as just an appendix, someone who needs to be taught things and who has to be convenient.
My personal feminism is reflected in the ideology of our center. I believe that a woman doesn’t have to be convenient. Women should put themselves first, choose for themselves, based on their own desires and needs. If she wants to work and doesn’t want children - that’s fine, if she wants not to work and to have many children - also great, but not because she just got sick of questions like “when are you going to get married?” or “when are you going to have kids?”. Not because of social pressure, but because she realized that it’s what she wanted to do and who she wanted to be.
To allow for that, I think women need to have a clear understanding of how gender discrimination and gender-based violence works and how it starts, in order to be able to get out of it. Therefore, economic independence plays a critical role. For a woman that has a place to live and has food on her table, it'll be much easier to say that she doesn’t want to suffer abuse, than for one who doesn’t.
Many people strive for partnership, and it’s natural. Support, love, acceptance are great and important. However, you have to count on yourself. In addition to being a director of nasiliu.net, I also teach family law and I see that Russians don’t have an idea what they are doing when they marry. People think that a prenuptial agreement is something sinful, commercial. But in reality it’s just a way for people to agree on how they see their relationships and how they see the end of their relationships, if that happens. People here rush to marry, and as experience shows, when they get to the courts for divorce, it ends up ugly.
What are the primary projects of the organization?
We have two key areas of work: one is informational projects with the objective to inform the public on the issue of domestic violence, how to prevent it and what to do if it happens to you, how to ask for help. The second area is providing personal help for people who come to us, women and men who suffered from abuse. We are the first center in Moscow that works with abusers too. We also have HR consultants who can help victims improve their resumes and find employment to start becoming more economically independent. Recently we started our first self-defense course. It helps women to protect themselves, but also has physiological effects, especially building the confidence that they will be able to protect their children.
We have around 100-200 people a month apply for help in Moscow. With COVID-19, when we were working online, people were coming to us from across the country. In May 2020, we processed 600 applications.
We are growing rapidly. Last year we had just seven staff members - psychologists and lawyers, coordinators, accountants, a website manager. Now we have thirteen people, including a fundraiser and several staff psychologists. Five years ago, when I created this project, domestic violence wasn’t a big issue in public conversation. Now it is a widely discussed topic. I think this means we contributed already and now we need to start talking about things that are still a bit less prominent. Our aim is to provide high-quality personal assistance to victims of domestic abuse and continue to shed light on topics related to domestic violence.
Do you have any funding from the Russian government, or is your funding mostly non-governmental?
We live only on people’s donations. We only have one government grant, a grant from the mayor of Moscow, for a project called “Moscow Against Domestic Violence.” We created 15,000 flyers that we delivered to 100 city organizations for social assistance. We will also conduct four conference meetings for representatives from the fields of psychology, law and journalism and officials from the ministry of interior, social services, etc. The aim is for all these people to get to know each other and be able to work together. This grant didn’t cover any of our main activities and didn’t pay for anybody's salaries.
You said the Center is five years old. How did you come up with the idea to create this organization? What is the origin story?
I didn’t know about the issue of gender-based violence until I was 25. After I graduated from college, I started working on my Ph.D. and at the same time did a Master’s program in Tel Aviv. It was there that I read an article by a journalist who was abused by her boyfriend. That was basically how I found out about the problem of domestic violence.
At first, I tried to find a job as a lawyer at an organization that was already dealing with domestic violence. However, as I soon found out, there weren't many organizations like that, and all of them had very limited resources and couldn’t hire me. I volunteered for some time, waiting for an opportunity to come up, but nothing happened.
So I decided to start my own project. At the time, I worked at the “SPID Center” [foundation supporting people living with HIV/AIDS], and for the first three years of existence of nasiliu.net, I only spent my own money on it, without any outside support. After three years, I left my primary job and registered nasiliu.net as an NGO. Some ridiculously small donations started to trickle in, but that allowed me to stop spending my own money on miscellaneous expenses.
Since then, year after year, the organization has expanded. Now we have a big team, big space and big plans.
A lot of Russians are brought up in an environment that rewards conformity, lack of initiative and social and political apathy. I’m always curious, what makes people active in civil society? What makes people believe that they can create change? What do you think influenced you to be able to create your own organization?
I think, first of all, it was my grandfather. He was a political journalist and always talked to me about difficult questions. He was a reporter for a Russian newspaper in the US for ten years, and I think living in the US influenced him: he didn't have that soviet vision, he saw how free courts and free press work, how people can interact differently. He saw a completely different principle of human dignity. I’m not idealizing the US, there are still many problems there. I lived there when I was in primary school, and even though I went to a Russian embassy school, living there definitely widened my horizons.
Another thing that contributed to my interest in human rights is that when I was around 16 I learned about the Holocaust. It was hard to comprehend how that happens, and it changed my understanding of discrimination and the importance of human rights.
I’ve always been politically engaged as an adult: I participated in the elections as an observer and even tried to run for municipal elections. Then, when the Bolotnaya protests happened [2011 protests against Russia’s rigged elections], the police conducted a search of my home and I was interrogated. Soon after that I went to study in Tel Aviv. I didn’t want to leave Russia, but I just wanted to be in a country where I felt secure.
Security is why I’m so passionate about domestic violence. Security is the most basic human need, and this basic need is not satisfied for women in our country.
Another thing that our country loves is hierarchies, and I grew up with an understanding that a person should have an opinion and freedom of expression, and I don’t like hierarchical systems in any part of society.
Studying at Tel Aviv University widened my knowledge and understanding of feminism. I also stopped concentrating on Putin and [other] individuals, and started thinking more systemically. From the micro-level, I went to the macro-level. The topic of domestic violence is interesting to me as a system, from different perspectives such as law, culture, anthropology, and others.
So how do you define the priorities of your center now? If somebody came in and gave you a large grant, what would you do with that money? What is the most worthy investment when dealing with a problem as big as domestic violence?
First, we lack crisis centers. I would spend most of the money on an educational campaign teaching people that domestic violence is not a family matter and explain why women in such situations don’t leave. I would create places where they can go. It should be a place where a person can remember they have dignity, honor and where they can learn something that will allow them to get into the job market and live with dignity. Without a doubt, I think we need to give victims fishing rods instead of fish, empower women economically so they can feel protected, can adapt and rebuild their lives.
Also, we need a law against domestic violence so that there are legal mechanisms to protect women. Women need to know that their abusers are prohibited by law from interacting with them. As long as there is no such law, women will live in constant fear. But I don’t think we should spend money on lobbying. Surveys show that 70% of Russians already support an anti-domestic violence law. We just have a situation where our parliament is not a place that represents the interests of the people, and that’s a completely different problem. But even without this law, nothing prevents us from creating crisis centers and, most importantly, informing people that such centers exist.