Baku, March 27 –Two of every five Russian children say that their parents have beaten or otherwise abused them, a tragedy that drives more than 50,000 of them to flee their homes every year, often landing in a life of crime – 11,000 are now imprisoned -- and, when they have children of their own, treating their own children in the same way.
Russian officials agree that such violence is now one of the most serious problems their country faces, but because so many intractable factors are involved – high rates of alcoholism, widespread tolerance for such behavior, and significant shortcomings in the legal system – they are divided on what should be done.
Some believe that Moscow must make the legal penalties for such crimes far harsher. Others argue that the government must both combat alcoholism and work to change popular attitudes. And still a third group says that only a comprehensive strategy has any chance of combating this problem.
All these positions were very much in evidence at a meeting on Wednesday of the Russian government’s new commission on the defense of the rights of minors. Speaking to the group, MVD chief Rashid Nurgaliyev noted that the authorities last year charged 6,000 parents with such crimes (http://gzt.ru/society/2008/03/25/220107.html).
But that figure is almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg: More than 2,000 children died from parental violence in 2007, suggesting just how widespread such crimes may now be. And one participant pointed out that up to 90 percent of the cases of parental sex abuse of children never enter the legal system.
Not surprisingly given his area of responsibilities, Nurgaliyev called for dealing with the problem through the legal system, increasing penalties on parents found guilty of violence against their children, adopting new laws on the protection of children and setting up a countrywide system of juvenile courts.
But other participants were unsure that would work. As Oleg Zykov of the Social Chamber pointed out, increasing fines on alcoholic and sadistic parents might do little to improve their behavior and could result in more suffering if those parents then cut back in the amount they spend on food for their offspring.
While welcoming some increase in penalties, Aleksandra Ochirova, the chairman of the Social Chamber’s social and demographic policy committee, said that would not be sufficient unless the government also worked to change popular attitudes about family violence.
Others taking part in the meeting called for improving children’s homes, but Tatyana Yakovleva, a member of the Duma’s public health committee, noted that “90 percent” of the children in these institutions have a living “father or mother” to whom they could in principle return were the latter not violent.
But despite these disagreements – and they reflect broader debates in Russian society and government – participants did agree on three things. First, they backed the idea that the country needed to adopt some kind of law on the rights of children. At present, child protection is the subject of a variety of federal and regional laws.
According to Yakovleva, an analysis of 3,000 pieces of legislation governing the treatment of children found that many of the existing laws do not give priority to prevention of such crimes but rather discuss only how the government should respond once a child is a victim (http://www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=158732).
Second, they agreed that the government must do more to ensure that fathers pay alimony so that single mothers will be better able to take their children. Some 4.5 million Russian children now life with a single parent, typically the mother, and only one third of such parents are receiving any alimony or child support payments.
And third, they backed improving social services and intervention efforts, with one speaker even noting that sometimes parents with plenty of money drink it all up leaving the children with no food and no possibilities to obtain the medical and educational services they need.
Parental violence against children is found in every society, but it appears to be especially widespread in Russia, given the level of alcoholism and lack of social sanctions against such acts. As a result, anyone who cares about children and the future can only hope that Moscow’s new focus on this issue will lead to some improvement.