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Time of Russian Women

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Time of Russian Women


Svetlana Smetanina

Our compatriot community includes a lot of dynamic female members that have managed to realize their potential in another countries and provide assistance to those who have faced difficulties. Elizaveta Donnery, a solicitor from Ireland, Natalia Zhukova, a family psychologist from Finland, and Anastasia Tikhonova, a member of the Russian Women Association in Malaysia and a volunteer helping women who face domestic violence, tell us about their activities.

Elizaveta Donnery, a solicitor and notary public, lives in Ireland. She has been working as a solicitor there for 12 years and became a notary public not long ago. Elizaveta was the first Russian-speaking lawyer to open the office in Ireland.

Elizaveta Donnery

When our compatriots residing in Ireland seek your assistance, what issues or questions do they have?

If we talk about our Russian-speaking compatriots, then the following areas should be named: civil cases, immigration issues, and family affairs since there are many mixed marriages and couples who came here together when, for example, one of the spouses had been invited for employment. Both I and my Irish colleagues see the intense pressure that families have been exposed to due to coronavirus related issues. The number of court cases in this respect has increased substantially.

Sometimes there are cases related to social issues, for example, interaction with social services. There are cases involving discrimination, for example, in educational institutions. The labor sphere has been affected to a greater extend during the crisis. We are now seeing a significant increase in employment-related cases.

What situations are the most typical for our compatriots?

There is a certain link between immigration and family issues. For instance, it is relevant if we are talking about mixed marriages. The family law in Ireland has some specific features. It is much easier to file for divorce and obtain a divorce certificate in Russia. As to Ireland, until quite recently, getting permission to file for divorce used to take four years. Then the judicial proceedings took several months or several years in some cases. But now, after the referendum, this waiting period has been reduced to two years. And it's still a long time.

If a woman wants to divorce, leave Ireland and take children with her, which is a very common situation among my clients, it is a challenging task. If children were born here and the spouse's relatives are here, then they all will certainly be against the children leaving the country. But if the case involves emotional or psychological, not to mention physical, abuse, then the injured party can seek protection, where the abuser may be evicted from the house or flat, even if it belongs to him.

The judicial system is very complex here. A person needs a lot of time and money if s/he wants to resolve an issue through judicial procedures. Also, a foreign spouse may lose his/her immigration status, and this issue will have to be resolved at the same time. I always advise clients not to mislead either the court or the justice department. If a couple has no relationship or is separated, everything possible shall be done to explain the situation to the immigration service correctly, and they show understanding. If this is not done on time, then certain sanctions may be imposed. It is very important to act quickly not to end up as a victim.

Sometimes there are cases of discrimination at the workplace. They often relate to low-skilled jobs. Sometimes there can be up to forty percent of our compatriots among workforce of certain organizations, such as factories or farms. So, many issues may arise, for example, using the native language at work.

As to the Russian-speaking expatriate community in Ireland, has its quality been changing in the recent years?

Yes, it has. I see changes. And I notice them not only in my professional activities, but also in my work within the Coordinating Council of Compatriots in Ireland. Nowadays a lot of Russian-speaking expatriates work in IT, where there is a high demand for professionals from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. In 2005 - 2006, people came mainly for low-skilled jobs and worked hard about 60 to 70 hours a week. Later many of them pursued legal action against those employers. And now I see more Russian-speaking specialists who come for high-paying jobs.

Tell us please about your cooperation with the Foundation for Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad.

I have received several grants from the Foundation, so I can offer our compatriots free consultations. This year we have had two series of such consultations. The first series were conducted in September and the other are scheduled for October. We discuss such issues as violation of rights and freedoms, potential exposure to discrimination. For example, people reported about ethnicity-based discrimination of a child at school. But here you need to understand that such court cases take a very long time and it is very difficult to prove potential discrimination. This requires time and resources.

Natalia Zhukova, a consulting psychologist, author of books on parenting and education of bilingual children, lives in Finland, but works in 13 countries. She runs a family counseling center in Helsinki and also trains facilitators for multicultural immigrant support groups of the Finnish Civil Society Association.

Natalia Zhukova

What problems do people mostly come to you with?

Psychologists make efforts to avoid saying "problem", instead we say "situation". Issues mainly arise when children reach adolescence. A child usually does not give parents any special difficulties until reaching the age of six or seven.

Each parent believes that s/he is the best parent; and now there are groups for mothers on social networks. As professional psychologists, we see these groups as help on the one hand, and as a psychological trap for parents on the other.

When people come to me because of children, I suggest working with the parents first. Because a child grows up in a family and mirrors the behavior pattern that s/he sees in parents. And the latter do not ask what to change in them, but rather what to do with the children. Because they believe the problem is in the child's behavior, not in them.

May it be said that families you work with have both their own specific problems and the common ones?

Of course, there are some specific issues. As a rule, these are the families where parents come from different social systems. If we refer to families of bilingual children, parents come from the same social circle in very rare cases. If the mother is from Russia, and the father is a representative of the titular nation, can we expect they would raise their children in the same way? It is very unlikely. And the common thing for those who come to see a psychologist is inability to interact, lack of communication in their families and lack of mutual understanding.

There are no bad children. But they absorb everything that happens in their family like a sponge. If parents get along with each other, then children learn with pleasure and socialize well. If there is a conflict between parents and their relationship is not mature, the children will certainly be affected. When a child becomes a side of a conflict, s/he is forced to survive in some cases, which means s/he will hit back to survive.

Probably, the pandemic and lockdown have caused the demand for psychological help to grow even higher, haven’t them?

My colleagues are literally swamped with work. Family members started getting to know each other due to transition to remote work and distance learning. When people meet only for breakfast, dinner and at weekends, this is one thing. But when they spend time together night and day, it is something else. The fact that they are members of the same family does not mean that they think and react the same way.

We see that emotional and psychological stress in society has increased significantly. People stay in one place for a long time without a chance to go somewhere and change the environment. This is a kind of psychological abuse. Support and help are very much needed in such a situation.

Usually people come to a psychologist when they can stand their circumstances no longer. A person comes and says: “I want to be with my spouse and children, but we do not know how to smooth things out.

You help families with bilingual children. Tell us please about a set of lectures on psychology that you prepared together with the Pushkin Institute.

The Psychological Support, Training and Education of Bilingual Children project was developed in the laboratory of Professor Olga Kalenkova. The set includes 12 lectures. Nowadays, this topic is of interest for a lot of people, both professionals in this area and those who concern themselves with it. In fact, it is very delicate and requires a careful approach.

In 2010, Zlatoust Publishing House published my two-volume day planner for Russian-speaking parents raising bilingual children. Trust and Independence, the first volume, is about children from birth to three years of age, while Initiative and Self-reliance, the second one, is about children aged from four to seven.

I have prepared lectures on topics that are useful for parents. Because just doing homework with your child or taking him/her to school in the morning and evening is not enough. You need to know how a child develops at certain age, and that boys and girls perceive information, communicate with peers and react to teachers in different ways.

Parents are not required to know everything on child-rearing. But we, as specialists, can prompt and draw their attention to certain points from time to time.

The above mentioned lectures will be posted on the Pushkin Institute website starting from October. Moreover, parents can write and ask questions, and we will answer them.

Anastasia Tikhonova, a member of the Russian Women Association in Malaysia, got involved in activities related to rights of women and children, as well as domestic violence after she had faced divorce and informational vacuum.

Anastasia Tikhonova

You got involved in activities related to rights of women and children, as well as domestic violence as a volunteer. What was the reason behind that?

When such an issue as divorce came up for me, it turned out that finding any unbiased information on a specific situation and in a specific country was almost impossible. There was no such information even in English; much less I could expect to find it available in Russian.

Living abroad, we all hear some stories with a touch of detective novels about run-away wives and kidnapped children. These stories are discussed at tea parties, in women's chats, and they set the stage for the following myth: foreign wives have no rights, they will not be able to get divorce, or the court will certainly give the custody of children to their father. Due to this cliche, women who have faced domestic violence are afraid to take action and believe their spouses who intimidate them.

General organizations send foreign women to a lawyer, and in most cases lawyers are not able to offer advice on the entire range of issues related to international marriages and divorces, child custody and immigration law.

The need in an information resource on rights of women and children for foreign spouses, as well as those who live abroad, became obvious. It is necessary and extremely important for our female compatriots to know their rights, be able to get help, have clear understanding of their situation adequately and make an action plan based on the facts.

How relevant is protection of their rights for Russian-speaking women in Malaysia? Do they face such issues more often than representatives of other ethnic communities?

There are not so many Russian-speaking women in Malaysia compared to other nationalities. Nevertheless, every week I receive questions related to domestic violence, visa regulations or children's rights. Although there is no official statistics, the referral rate is already a red flag for me. For example, more than 30 cases have come up since the beginning of this year. I get questions from Malaysian women, as well as women from European countries, Japan, China, and Korea. At the same time, my contacts are not publicly available, but these women find me through friends.

How common is domestic violence in Malaysia?

In Malaysia, 50% of calls to the police relate to domestic violence, and these are the reported cases only. Unfortunately, it is a regular thing in many local families. For example, physical punishment is still allowed in Malaysian schools, and it is enshrined in the Law on Education.

During the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Ministry of Women and Children and women's organizations reported that domestic violence cases had the surge of 57%.

In 1994 Malaysia passed the Law on Domestic Violence, which protects rights and safety of the spouse and children (as well as the entire family), and the 1997 amendments introduced the concept of psychological abuse.

Each admission ward in a public hospital has a special department where you can report a case of domestic violence or child abuse; it can be done on an anonymous basis, free of charge, and around the clock. They can also help write down a statement to the police, meet with a psychologist and social worker. The victim, or, as they are called in Malaysia, Survivor, may get a protective order from the court, which will remain in force during the investigation. According to statistics, more than 2,000 cases of domestic violence are registered annually, but it should be borne in mind that only 8% of the cases were referred to the prosecutor's office.

How protected are women's rights in Malaysia from the legal point of view? What can a woman claim in the event of a divorce?

Malaysia has two judicial systems governed by different laws: for Muslims and non-Muslims (civil court).

In general, both systems stipulate that if children are under the age of 7, then the mother shall have preferences to become the childrens guardian; and when children are over 7, joint custody is provided. According to Malaysian law, alimony can be requested not only for children, but also for the wife, and not only in case of divorce, but also when you are married - you are legally entitled to be supported by your spouse.

The property in a marriage is to be divided based on the spouses contribution and regardless of who is its legal owner. For example, even if the husband is registered as the house owner, and it was bought before the marriage, the wife can prove that she made her contribution to the household by doing housework, taking care of children, preparing food, and request a part of the property or a cash equivalent.

Unfortunately, there are many cases when foreign spouses, did not know their rights and did not even attend the trial. In such a case, the court does not dispute the husband's statement and conditions and accepts them.

Please note that the divorce procedure in Malaysia is quite lengthy (and expensive): 6 months are given for family consultations and the divorce takes 6 months to a year. By the way, according to statistics, if the spouse does not give his consent, the divorce takes 2 to 4 years. So you need to be mentally prepared, plan your financial costs and resolve the visa issue.

Obviously, the problem is much broader and requires extensive cooperation with dedicated women's organizations. Having secured their assistance and support, we hope to have positive changes in this respect and see actions by the Malaysian and foreign authorities. The more compatriots (and foreign women in general) have an active attitude and report cases of their rights violation, defend them in court, talk about their cases, volunteer in women's movements, the more likely the problem will be noticed not only at the level of our Russian-speaking expatriate community, but as a part of discrimination against women that exists in society in general.

Malaysia is expected to introduce the Law on Harassment this year; and its cyberbullying and cyberstalking legislation is under development. So, volunteers from the Russian-speaking expatriate community have the opportunity to contribute in making Malaysian Internet environment safe.

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