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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Invisible Woman

Demographers pronounced themselves shocked when evidence was released in 1993 indicating a decline in the life expectancy for men and women in the Russian Federation. The collapse in the rate for men caused a significant public stir. The statistics on women passed almost unnoticed. In the words of a U.S. Census Bureau demographer, "attention is often given to the increased mortality among adult men, [but] mortality has also increased for women and infants." The demographics point to another troubling phenomenon taking place in Russia. Let us call it the syndrome of the invisible woman.

According to the Interior Ministry, only 12,515 cases of rape and attempted rape were registered in 1995. In 1996, only 10,888 cases of rape in the entire country were recorded. This figure represents a drop of 13 percent. While the ministry immediately attributed the drop to its crime-fighting prowess, the numbers are contradicted by the steady stream of calls coming into rape crisis centers across the country. In Moscow alone, crisis centers for women receive over 400 calls per month. Counselors estimate that fewer than 5 percent of women report the crimes to law enforcement. Even fewer women manage to convince police to register their report. In comparison, 97,464 cases of rape and attempted rape were reported to U.S. police in 1995.

The Russian government does not collect specific statistics on domestic violence. Violence against women is hidden in statistical line items such as "light bodily injury" and "hooliganism." The government recently suggested that violence takes place in one out of four families in Russia. But the absence of hard data guarantees the invisibility of the problem as well as the invisibility of the women who suffer from violence. A proposed domestic violence law has yet to be read in the State Duma.

The Russian Federation also has almost no shelters. The only two shelters for battered women in Russia are in St. Petersburg and Langepas, Siberia. There is no shelter in Moscow. Together, the two existing shelters have a capacity of 90.

Invisibility similarly afflicts women in the political sphere. Women's political representation has plummeted in Russia from a high of 33 percent during the Soviet period, to a mere 7.5 percent in both houses of the parliament today. There is not a single woman mayor of a major city. There is only one female governor. Only 1.4 percent of federal ministers and deputy ministers are women. In fact, arguably the most powerful woman in politics today is Yeltsin's own daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko. This fact speaks more about nepotism than about women's representation. The shrinking status of women is reflected, too, in women's salaries. According to Anastasia Posadskaya, former director of the Moscow Center for Gender Studies, women now earn only 43 percent of the salaries made by men. The World Bank's more conservative estimate places women's earnings at 71 percent of men's hourly wage. But those numbers only reflect the situation for women who still have jobs. Many do not. Over 70 percent of the officially unemployed are female. And women are banned from over 460 job categories considered by the Labor Ministry to be dangerous for their reproductive health. Those jobs, incidentally, are among the highest paying.

Between 1993 and 1996, not a single sexual harassment case went to court in the Russian Federation. Just as the Soviet Union had no sex, the Russian Federation has no sexual harassment.

Women figure prominently in poverty statistics. According to the Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey, 31 percent of the elderly lived below the poverty line in 1995. Women make up 70 percent of pensioners. Single-parent households headed by women are significantly more likely to be poor than other types of households with children, according to a World Bank study published in 1995. Over 90 percent of such families are headed by women.

Russian women are routinely trafficked to destinations around the world, including the Middle East, Asia, Western Europe and the United States, to work in forced prostitution. Anita Gradin, the European Union's commissioner for justice and immigration, estimates that two-thirds of the 500,000 women trafficked for prostitution worldwide annually come from Eastern Europe. Russian women are not invisible abroad. The situation has become so blatant that prostitutes in Turkey are now commonly referred to as "Natashas."

In November, Marina Pisklakova, director of the No to Violence Against Women Association, will be honored by Human Rights Watch Helsinki as a human rights monitor. Her work to bring national and international attention to violence against women in Russia has earned her the respect of the international human rights community. Russian women fighting against abuses of women's human rights in the Russian Federation have been noticed. Their stature is growing. It is time that the Russian federal government begin to notice as well.

The Russian government has issued proclamations. President Boris Yeltsin has published decrees. All the verbiage amounts to nothing in light of the fact that no money has been allocated to make good on the promises. As Moscow Center for Gender Studies activist Yelena Kochkina notes, the policy papers are "largely symbolic." Russian women's organizations have organized conferences on domestic violence and trafficking to be held in the next month. It is time that the Russian government end the rhetorical flourishes and begin to take measures to stop these abuses. Invisibility -- and denial -- are no longer an option.

Martina Vandenberg is a former coordinator for the NIS-U.S. Women's Consortium. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.