Overcoming Roadblocks to Justice Across Eurasia
In January 2019, Equality Now released our groundbreaking report Roadblocks to Justice: How The Law Is Failing Survivors Of Sexual Violence In Eurasia. The report showed how rape and sexual assault-related laws and practices of the 15 countries of the former Soviet Union effectively deny access to justice for survivors of sexual violence.
The report highlighted that legal systems across the region provide a number of opportunities for perpetrators to escape criminal liability or punishment, including:
- Through the way sexual violence crimes are defined;
- Through the way the law allows for the direct release of a perpetrator from liability or punishment in certain circumstances;
- Through the way sexual violence crimes are investigated and prosecuted, including with respect to adolescent girls;
- Failure to designate certain violent practices as separate crimes; and
- As a consequence of layers of discrimination against women and girls and intersections with other forms of marginalization and vulnerability.
We’ve rounded up some of the developments in women’s rights across the region, and some of our work since the release of the report.
In July 2019, together with the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre and the Armavir Development Centre, Equality Now made a submission to the Human Rights Council for Armenia’s Universal Periodic Review, highlighting issues around sexual violence and access to justice.
In 2019, certain important amendments were made to Armenia’s domestic violence law adopted in 2017, including removing references to restoring harmony in the family and reconciliation as guiding principles of the law.
However, throughout 2019, Armenia still lacked legal mechanisms and effective implementation of existing laws to combat violence against women, including domestic violence and sexual violence, and providing adequate redress to survivors. Incidents of violence against women remained underreported and survivors seldom came forward, even though 2019 was the year in which women started sharing stories of sexual abuse, anonymously, online.
Armenia adopted a new human rights national strategy in 2019, which includes the intention of “criminalization of domestic violence in accordance with international standards”. Despite this, domestic violence is still not criminalized under the Criminal Code of Armenia.
Armenia is also yet to adopt an anti-discrimination law, prohibiting discrimination on all grounds, including sex and gender.
Even though Armenia signed the Istanbul Convention in 2018, the Convention has not yet been sent to the Parliament for its ratification. Conservative groups in Armenia, including the Armenian Apostolic Church, are against the Convention, seeing it as endangering national traditions and values and misleadingly believing that the Convention gives recognition to the “third sex”. To combat backlash, the Venice Commission adopted an opinion countering misperceptions about the Convention and explaining that the Convention is in line with the Constitution of Armenia.
Equality Now made a submission to the Human Rights Council for Belarus’ Universal Periodic Review in May 2019, highlighting that the definitions of rape and sexual violence related crimes in Belarus do not conform to international human rights standards. In addition, perpetrators of sexual violence often go unpunished because of discriminatory investigation and prosecution procedures that are applied in practice.
Belarus still has not enacted a specific law on domestic violence and a specific law combatting discrimination on any grounds. Domestic violence is not separately criminalized in the Criminal Code.
In March 2019, Equality Now joined local women’s groups in Tbilisi, Georgia to mark International Women’s Day, supporting calls for amendments to sexual violence laws and procedures.
In October we joined calls for the media in Georgia to adhere to human rights standards when covering sexual violence, particularly in their representation of survivors.
In December we announced a partnership with UN Women and the Council of Europe to improve responses to sexual violence in Georgia, primarily through the development of a Sexual Violence Investigation and Prosecution Manual. The manual will be instrumental for improving the practice and criminal procedures related to sexual violence crimes, ensuring compliance with the standards set forth in the Istanbul Convention and effective administration of justice.
In February 2020, Equality Now made a submission to Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) regarding the list of issues for the 13th pre-sessional working group, highlighting obstacles to accessing justice for sexual violence for women with disabilities. This was the first alternative report of its kind submitted to a Treaty Body in relation to Georgia. In April 2020, CRPD issued the list of issues in relation to Georgia, asking the State to provide information on access to justice and compensation, medical, psychological care, rehabilitation and social integration for women with disabilities, who became victims on sexual violence, as well as disaggregated data on sexual abuse against them - all raised in the Equality Now submission. This is the first time a UN Treaty Body specifically asked Georgia to focus on issues of sexual violence against women with disabilities.
In March 2020, Equality Now made a submission to the Human Rights Committee of the Parliament of Georgia, providing recommendations on amending the definition of rape in the Criminal Code, in compliance with the Istanbul Convention and international human rights standards.
Throughout 2019, Equality Now joined together with organizations advocating for increasing penalties for sexual violence crimes and removing the possibility of reconciliation, which left perpetrators unpunished - the issues highlighted in the Roadblocks report. These changes came into force in December 2019 through amendments made in the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan.
Together with the Public Movement Against Violence, #NeMolchi.Kz and the Feminist League of Kazakhstan, we made submissions to the Human Rights Council ahead of Kazakstan’s Universal Periodic Review and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Both submissions highlighted issues around rape and other forms of sexual violence and procedures and practices which effectively deny access to justice for survivors of sexual violence, including that sexual violence was not punished based on its gravity and that the law allowed the possibility for reconciliation and leaving perpetrators unpunished.
Equality Now also supported Kazakh activists calling for improved access to justice for survivors of sexual violence and calling for the above amendments in the law.
Despite the change in the law, Equality Now continues to advocate for further measures to ensure Kazakhstan’s full compliance with international human rights standards, including amendment of the definition of rape and addressing discriminatory investigation procedures.
Even though Kazakhstan has a law on domestic violence, domestic violence is still not a separate crime under the Criminal Code. Decriminalization of battery and light bodily harm in 2017, including in cases of domestic violence, remained in force in 2019. Amendments of the domestic violence law are currently underway and Equality Now, together with the NeMolchi movement, is calling upon the authorities to ensure that the amendments are compliant with international human rights standards and provide adequate support to survivors.
In January 2020, Equality Now applied to the authorities in Kazakhstan to drop criminal charges against Dina Smailova, a prominent women’s rights lawyer and head of NeMolchi ("Do Not be Silent" in Russian) Foundation. Dina faced criminal charges for defamation after speaking publicly about insensitive and victim-blaming media coverage of a rape case in the country. On March 6th, 2020 Dina was acquitted. We remain concerned about the use of the law to silence women’s rights defenders in Kazakhstan and across the region.
In January 2019, domestic violence was criminalized in Kyrgyzstan under the Code of Misdemeanours (in addition to the strengthened Family Violence Law, adopted in 2017, replacing the 2003 law). Domestic violence had routinely been treated as an administrative offense before.
Together with Associate Professor Dr. Nadejda Prigoda, Human Rights Movement, Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan (BDK), Public Association “Ensan Diamond” and PA “Alga” (Chui oblast, Equality Now made submissions to the Human Rights Council ahead of Kyrgyzstan’s Universal Periodic Review and to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The submissions detailed concerns with regard to laws related to rape and other forms of sexual violence, falling short of international human rights standards, and procedures and practices which effectively deny access to justice for survivors of sexual violence.
In April 2019, amendments to the Criminal Code entered into force, which increased the maximum punishment for bride kidnapping to a 10-year prison sentence and a fine of US$3,000. Kyrgyzstan has still no anti-discrimination law.
Several high profile cases, including the case of the Khachaturian sisters, led to public debate about the state of Russia’s domestic violence provisions. Decriminalization of simple assault of family members in 2017, which included cases of spousal and parental abuse, remained in force in 2019.
Equality Now continues to advocate for Russia’s Domestic Violence Law to be revised to meet international human rights standards. Given the scope of domestic violence in Russia, it is critical that Russian lawmakers, in collaboration with civil society, introduce comprehensive measures to prevent domestic violence, protect victims and bring perpetrators to account according to international human rights standards.
In January 2020, together with the Equal Rights Trust and the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre we submitted a joint Third-Party Intervention to the European Court of Human Rights. The applicant in the case is a Russian national who claims that the State failed to conduct an effective investigation into her allegations of rape by her husband. In this submission, we outlined the failures in the laws and procedures of Russia on sexual violence, which deny justice to survivors.
In 2019, Equality Now wrote to the Russian authorities with recommendations on putting in place a domestic violence law providing adequate protection and support to survivors, and giving due recognition to sexual violence. A draft law was tabled but not adopted in 2019. In April 2020, the Russian Federation Council postponed work on the DV bill until the end of the coronavirus pandemic. The FC Speaker Valentina Matvienko said: “I don’t think there will be any surge in domestic violence, because families, on the contrary, are going through this difficult period together,” in spite of the numerous statements by activists and crisis organizations for women about a sharp increase in the number of visits in March.
In January 2019, Ukraine became the first country in the region to introduce a consent-based definition of rape in the Criminal Code in line with the Istanbul Convention. Ukraine has yet to ratify the Convention. The amendments also expressly criminalized domestic violence. Proper implementation of the legal amendments remains a problem.
In 2019, Uzbekistan adopted a law against domestic violence and a law to guarantee equal rights and opportunities for women and men. In March 2020, Equality Now wrote to the authorities in Uzbekistan, suggesting legal amendments to the criminal legislation in regard to sexual violence, to bring the law into compliance with international human rights standards.
Thanks to tireless activism from women’s rights advocates across the region, often facing stark resistance, progress is coming. Together, we will make equality reality in the region, and across the world.