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

Armenia's Silent Victims

Thousands of women endure beatings, lacking the means to protect themselves.
By Gayane Abrahamian
Almost half of Armenia’s women have suffered domestic abuse, say researchers, yet this disturbing problem is being hushed up because of traditional attitudes.



“Armenian women suffer violence, but they are afraid and keep silent, as they don’t believe that anything can be done about it,” said Consuelo Vidal, United Nations resident coordinator in Armenia at the launch of a 16-day programme Campaign Against Gender Violence that continues until December 16.



For 13 years, Hasmik Hakobian has been married to a man from a traditional Armenian family in the town of Gavar around 100 kilometres from Yerevan.



She was just nineteen when her father married her off to a young man, whom she’d only ever seen from the window of her house.



“I have a black eye permanently so the neighbours have long stopped asking me what the matter is,” said Hasmik. “Happiness for me means not being beaten and blood not gushing from my nose.”



Hasmik said she was beaten for the first time three days after her wedding, and since then she has lost count of the number of times she has suffered abuse.



“I was pregnant then,’ she recalled. “I was baking bread. I don’t know what my mother-in-law had told my husband, but he was mad with rage when he rushed into the bakery. He snatched the rolling pin from my hands and hit me on the back and head with it. I came round in hospital, having already delivered the baby.”



Hasmik decided to leave her husband, but her father refused to take her back home, saying that wives were always beaten by their husbands and advising her to put up with it and raise her child.



Ethnographer and sociologist Mihran Galstian said that traditional denigrating attitudes towards women in Armenia has made such violence possible. Armenian folk proverbs actively encourage beating by promoting the idea that “a woman is like wool - the more you beat it, the softer it becomes” or “a woman is made to cry”.



Officials and parliamentarians also refuse to acknowledge there is a problem.



For example, Armen Ashotian, a member of parliament from the governing Republican Party, said, “Domestic violence is not a feature of our families. I think that people who want to raise this problem are really not bothered by the issue but just want to get new grants. They are lowering the image of Armenia for the sake of their own pockets.



“There are occasionally cases of it, but domestic violence is not on a big scale in our society. They shouldn’t present Armenia as some kind of African tribe, where people eat one another.”



Data collected suggests otherwise. In 2004-2005, the Sociometer Centre for Independent Sociological Studies conducted a poll of 1200 women in Yerevan and eight towns and eight villages. Forty six per cent said they were exposed to violence in their family, a quarter in the presence of their children.



“Our officials refuse to admit that violence does exist in Armenian families and that serious measures need to be taken to fight it,” said Susanna Vardanian, director of the Women’s Rights Centre in Yerevan. “Moreover, they accuse others of destroying our traditionally strong families in order to get grants.”



“Unfortunately, many see the abuse of women as normal. The belief that violence is an integral part of married life originates in early childhood: first a girl is beaten by her brother, then by her husband, and she comes to think that that’s the way it should be,” said Adibek Aharonian, director of the Sociometer centre.



According to Sociometer, 45 per cent of the women suffering abuse in their families keep quiet about their problem. Only 0.3 per cent resort to divorce, and no more than 0.4 per cent contact the police.



Vardanian said women had no faith in the police to protect them and they were afraid of the consequences, “After the police leave, [a victim] may be subjected to still greater violence, as it’s shameful to wash your family’s dirty linen in public.”



Gulnara Martirosian (not her real name) now lives in an old people's home in Yerevan, although she is only 45. Her 25 years of married life were an endless series of fights not only with her husband, but also with his mother and brother.



“Anyone who felt like it could beat me,” she told IWPR. “If something was wrong in the house, I was the one who got the blame. They pounced on me and beat me - all together. Once I tried to defend myself, I grabbed a chair and hit my husband over the head with it.”



This incident, which happened in 2002, cost Gulnara her sight.



“I hit him and darted out of the house, but there was nowhere to run - my parents are dead, I have no relatives, and I sought refuge in my neighbour’s house,” she went on. “My husband came for me there, and when he saw me, he splashed acid in my eyes. I remember my face burning, the pain was so bad I lost consciousness. I was taken to Yerevan and operated on there, but my sight never returned.”



No one from the family comes to see Gulnara and she says her children have been told that she is dead.



“I couldn’t stand up for my rights, as I had no money, no relatives to run around the courts for me. That’s how my life has passed,” she said.



Since the Centre for Women Rights opened seven years ago, more than 10,000 women, including over four thousand victims of domestic violence, have called its hotline, asking for help. Another organisation, the Motherhood Foundation, has been open for four years and has dealt with 3,000 women, who said they were exposed to abuse.



“These are rather high figures for Armenia, considering that women suffering violence tend to seek help from their relatives and friends, and only those in a hopeless situation turn to organisations like ours,” said Anna Badalian, a psychologist at the foundation.



IWPR randomly polled ten women in Yerevan on the street. Four of them said they had been beaten by their husbands more than once. And there was a clear difference in outlook between the generations.



“If couples divorced because of beatings and abuse, there would be no families left in Armenia,” said accountant Satik Kintoian, 78.



“I remember my grandfather saying that a man, when choosing a wife for himself, should beat her first, and if she cowered in the corner, that meant she would make a good wife, and if she ran away, then she wouldn’t.



“I was beaten and loved too. They say the more he beats you, the more he’ll love you. I have no regrets about my life. I’m not saying that a wife should be beaten every day, but when she crosses the line, she should have a beating.”



Zaruhi Minasian, a 26-year-old translator, takes a different view. She said she has never been subjected to physical abuse but she has experienced psychological pressure.



“I have no respect for men who want to prove themselves by taking it out against women,” she said. “That only proves that these men are weak.”



Gayane Abrahamian is a correspondent for Armenianow.com.