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Dagestan: Incest Victims Suffer in Silence

The topic of incest remains taboo despite ample evidence that Dagestani girls are falling victim to this shocking crime.
By Sapiyat Magomedova

A father who strangled his adolescent daughter as she lay in bed told police that he was punishing her for “improper behaviour”, which had brought disgrace on her family.

They accepted his explanation as reasonable, though an autopsy showed that the girl had been sexually assaulted before she died. Her father was not questioned, despite speculation that the murder may have been an attempt to cover up an incestuous rape.

“It speaks volumes that law enforcement bodies simply accepted her father's reasons for murdering her,” said her teacher. “He had previous criminal convictions which were not even taken into account during the investigation. Only teachers and fellow classmates spoke up in the poor girl's defence. In the village, people agreed she had received the rightful punishment for one who had 'disgraced the family'."

IWPR has gathered stories and experiences of incest from the “frontline” – doctors and psychologists who find themselves treating the victims. These professionals were unanimous that while the subject remains strictly taboo in Dagestani society, victims will never receive justice – particularly when a father is involved.

Indeed, we found little evidence that the guilty are ever punished, or of any social welfare departments or non-government organisations, NGOs, that exist to offer counselling to incest survivors or even compile statistics on what many believe is a growing problem.

"Even rape by a stranger is rarely reported to the authorities, because of the mentality here," said lawyer Magomed Magomedov. "But the victim may at least seek solace from her mother, her sister or a close friend. If a girl has been raped by her father, this secret may go undiscovered forever. There have only been a handful of cases which have gone to court.”

Nineteen-year-old Albina did confide in her mother and female relatives, but fear of social ostracism stopped them seeking help.

“When I was 14 years old my father raped me,” she told IWPR as she waited to see a gynaecologist. "My mother had divorced him because of his drinking, but we continued to live in the same apartment. He had never paid me particular attention, but one day it suddenly happened - and he wasn't even drunk that day. Despite his threats, I told my mother everything and I was sent away to the countryside for a while. But he was still here when I returned. My mother, my aunt, my grandmother and I were all forced to put up with it. We didn't tell my brothers, which I am now glad about, as they would have killed him, then spent the rest of their lives being punished because of me."

Those who do expose incidents of incest face a wall of denial from many in society.

"Relationships between fathers and daughters border on the aloof here, so this simply couldn't happen," commented Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev, a prominent commentator, demonstrating a comfortable, common assumption.

But the experience of professionals working in the field contradicts that view.

"In the past, when I worked as an obstetrician and a gynaecologist, I was so shocked whenever I encountered cases of incest - I thought the world had turned upside down," said Aishat Magomedova, head of the League for Protection of Mother and Child. "In my current position, I saw a girl whose father raped her when her mother was away. These cases are not rare."

Magomedova's deep religious conviction and adherence to the laws of Islam do not blind her to the existence of incest, although it informs her attitude to the perpetrators.

“According to Islam, even relations between brother and sister are cold, aloof - even awkward. Any person who is sexually attracted to his own daughter is mentally ill. He should be her main protector and there is no place for mercy in cases of sexual abuse."

Sexologist Akhmed Azizov, however, questions whether incest is the product of mental illness.

“Most of these men lead normal lives. They work, they provide for their families and they have friends. One girl who came to me said that her father had ‘played’ with her since she was four. He told her that a birthmark on her buttocks was a tail and used that as an excuse to interfere with her. By the time she was eight or nine, that developed into full sexual relations. The girl’s grandmother was suspicious, but did not intervene. Later, she told the girl that as a child, her father had abused his own younger sister."

Intizar Mamutaeva, representative for children's rights at the State Council of the Republic of Dagestan, suggests sexual abuse has become more common in recent times.

"Incest was impossible to imagine in ancient Dagestan, or Soviet Dagestan. Now peoples' psychology has changed and concepts of morality have shifted. In the last 15-20 years, this unique culture and our long-established system of family relations have been exposed to much which is new, alien to us and not always positive," she said.

But the experience of Aminat Musaeva, head of gynaecology at the central maternity hospital, said this is not a post-Soviet problem. Girls attend the hospital from all over Dagestan to terminate their unwanted pregnancies.

"I have been practising here for 35 years and there have sometimes been girls who admitted that they fell victim to the brutal gratification of their fathers’ lust. Far more common are the unmarried girls who are so traumatised that they cannot open their mouths. I almost always suspect incest in these cases - and often I am right," he said.

In the rare cases where incest against a very small child comes to light, then public opinion will rally behind the victim. But if the victim is an adolescent or pre-adolescent, then she is always open to suspicion that she provoked her father.

"A father brought his two daughters, aged eight and 12, to the department for sexually transmitted diseases here. They were both suffering from the second stage of syphilis," recalled Artur Muzafarov, a hospital doctor. "It was clear they had been infected by their father. The mother, who had been away from the village for a long time, only appeared at the hospital much later. She also had syphilis, but a much milder dose. Judging from her reactions, she neither suspected her husband, nor thought it necessary to seek other protection for her children."

In one positive development, victims at least have a help line, which they can now ring to share their experiences. Run from a charitable women's hospital, Nadezdha (Hope), calls come in from all over Dagestan – many from adults admitting they were sexually abused as children.

A more unusual case serves to demonstrate the power which fathers continue to exert over their daughters, even into adulthood.

"This particular woman told us that she was the elder of two daughters in the family and had always felt flattered by the extra attention her father paid her,” said hospital psychologist Naida Vagabova. “Once she was married, he came to visit her on International Women's Day and finding her at home alone, he raped her. So this man was 'decent' while his daughter was still a child, but then when he saw an opportunity, he took it. He continued having sex, against his daughter's will, for around a year."

Sapiyat Magomedova is editor of the social section of the newspaper Chernovik.

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