Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Activists Call for More Action on Abuse

Campaigners warn that government statistics showing no rise in abuse do not reflect reality.
By Gayane Mkrtchyan
  • Nelly Duryan, who heads the police department that works to protect juveniles’ rights and combat domestic violence, said that there had been no increase in reports of abuse. (Photo: Armenia Polie Department)
    Nelly Duryan, who heads the police department that works to protect juveniles’ rights and combat domestic violence, said that there had been no increase in reports of abuse. (Photo: Armenia Polie Department)

Sarah (not her real name), said that while her husband had often beaten her during their 20-year marriage, the coronavirus lockdown had brought matters to a head.

“During the state of emergency, when we stayed home all day, it became unbearable,” said the 40-year-old mother of two. “At one point in late March, I realized that if I didn’t leave, I would be beaten to death. I left early in the morning without money. I just took my passport and ran away in my house clothes. I walked all the way through the villages until a random taxi took me to Yerevan.”

But once there, when Sarah sought help at the Kentron district police department, she was urged to return home and contact officers in her own village.

“I was barely able to escape so how could I go back, especially when there was no transport? And, besides, everyone knows each other in our village. I could not do that,” Sarah said.

Campaigners say the authorities are not doing enough to support vulnerable women and children in Armenia, which like many places around the world has experienced a surge in domestic violence during the coronavirus lockdown.

They warn that police figures showing no rise in abuse do not reflect the reality on the ground, noting that women are often reluctant to approach official bodies for help.

Sarah eventually made it to Yerevan’s Women's Support Centre, one of six people who managed to find refuge there during the pandemic, all of them in serious mental distress.

The Centre’s project manager Hasmik Gevorgyan said that the number of calls to their hotline had increased by 50 per cent compared to the same time last year.

“In the early days of the state of emergency, we did not receive many calls,” he continued. “We explained it by the fact that everyone was at home and women didn’t have the opportunity to make calls. As our experience shows, the phones of the women are usually controlled by their abusers.”

He added, “Imagine a woman who was constantly abused and lived all her life in a cage; she has no contacts in the outside world and doesn’t know how to use basic services. We have a woman who has never seen and touched money. Abusers often threaten to kill women, one abuser pressed a mop to a woman's throat and tried to strangle her.”

Nina Pirumyan, the head of research and education at the Public Defender of Armenia, said that from March 16 to June 1, the ombudsman’s office received 44 complaints of domestic violence.

“The majority of these - 34 cases - are related to violence coming from spouses,” she continued. “The study of these cases shows that unveiling the facts of domestic abuse is still a problem. There were cases when, despite the complaints filed to the ombudsman's office, the victims refused to report it to the police,” Pirumyan said. 

However, Nelly Duryan, who heads the police department that works to protect juveniles’ rights and combat domestic violence, said that there had been no increase in reports of abuse.

On average, the police logged five reports of domestic violence per day, she said.

“After the enactment of the state of emergency, people stayed at home, and we already knew that in some countries the cases of domestic violence increased under these conditions. We were afraid that the same thing would happen with us, but the statistics, in fact, show that this did not happen,” Duryan said.

However, she did note that some women preferred to contact NGOs as opposed to the police.

Zaruhi Hovhannisyan, who works at the Coalition to Stop Violence against Women, said that this was because government agencies were not often not responsive enough to those experiencing domestic violence.

“It is important that police officers have clear instructions at hand and can use the most effective directives when dealing with people who have been abused,” Hovhannisyan said.

Gevorgyan added that women prefer not to call the police because they simply want the violence to end, rather than to see their husbands prosecuted.

“If a case is reported to the police, the police must take immediate measures, and they [the women] are not ready for this,” he said. “We are the link via which the women are prepared to fight and build other relationships. The police have no such authority. It should also be noted that crisis centers provide confidential consultations, unlike the police, which is very important, especially in rural areas where everyone knows each other.”

Gohar Amirkhanyan, a social worker at the Women’s Support Center in Gegharkunik province, said that the number of calls to the centre had risen since the enactment of the state of emergency.

“There were cases when a brother-in-law abused his sister-in-law, or a daughter-in-law abused a mother-in-law,” Amirkhanyan continued. “In fact, many women in the provinces are not aware of their rights. They do not know that there is a place where they can call, talk about their problems and receive advice. Such services should have been launched a long time ago.”

Gegharkunik is the part of Amrenia which has the highest rates of labour migration. This year, due to the closed borders, many men were forced to stay at home.

“As a rule, they left in April, and women could live in peace until December. Now, women say that their relations have become tense, they have nowhere to go and they do not know what to do. Domestic violence is often aggravated by difficult financial situations,” Amirkhanian concluded.

Liana Sahakyan, the head of the Women’s Support Centre in Syunik province, noted that the region had extremely patriarchal traditions and women were reluctant to talk openly about such issues.

“They speak up only when there is no other way left,” she said. “During these three months, we received 30 calls. There is one woman in a difficult mental state, she needs the help of a medical professional, but she can’t come to us, her husband constantly controls her, she can’t even call us.”

Given these issues, NGOs working in the field feel that government policy is ineffective and lacks sensitivity.

Hovhannisyan noted that from the first day the state of emergency was declared in neighboring Georgia, citizens received text messages about services they could access, including in cases of domestic violence.

Nothing similar was organised in Armenia, where, he continued, “they are placing some posters only now, while in many countries these measures were taken from the early days, as in Georgia – by the government, and not by NGOs. Everything has been done so that the people were aware of their rights”.

Ministry of labour and social affairs spokeswoman Sona Martirosyan said that the department had not needed to take any special measures during the state of emergency because they had already implemented a range of mechanisms last year.

“This year, two government-funded shelters will open for domestic violence victims, Martirosyan continued. “They will also be provided with one-time financial aid in the amount of 150,000 drams (310 US dollars). A centralised procedure for recording cases of domestic violence was approved, thanks to which Armenia for the first time had statistical data. Finally, support centres for abused individuals were opened in the regions of Armenia.”

These support centres operate helplines to provide victims with psychological, legal and other advice.

Martirosyan added that the phone numbers of these regional support centres had been published in the media and on social networks, while posters raising awareness of domestic violence were being distributed in stores and pharmacies.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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