Domestic Violence Finally Debated in Armenia

Politicians act as beaten and abused women at last begin to break their silence.

Domestic Violence Finally Debated in Armenia

Politicians act as beaten and abused women at last begin to break their silence.

Saturday, 3 April, 2010

Domestic violence is rife in Armenia, with a third of women saying they have been abused at home - but at least it is now being talked about.

In the course of a survey conducted by the United Nations, women were handed pictures of a crying and a smiling face and asked to say which of them they identified with. Seventy per cent of the women surveyed chose the crying face.

Karine, 45, is one woman who picked out the unhappy face. She is from the town of Abovyan, some 18 kilometres from Yerevan, and married a young man she met when a student in the capital. She now says the only day of her marriage she wants to remember is her wedding day.

“After that, everything smashed into smithereens, it turned into hell on earth,” she said.

“There was no day without a beating. When he was drunk he did not even remember when I was pregnant, then he beat me in front of the children. Sometimes he made them join him in the beatings.

“You maybe cannot see the bruises on my body, but the injury to my spirit, the inner wounds can never be healed. I cannot forget this and I am angry with myself that I don’t have the strength to kill myself.”

A mother of three, she tried to kill herself twice but was saved by her children both times.

“I hanged myself in the barn, knowing that my children were playing hide and seek next door. But Mher, my 10-year-old, came in to hide and started shouting. He lifted me up by my feet, until they came in and got me down. But after that nothing changed, the beating and humiliation continued with new force,” she said.

She gave up her children to an orphanage to save them from their father and now lives alone. Through this two decades of torture, she never appealed to the police for help, saying that would have been shameful – a position that appears to be common among Armenian women.

"Women still only with great caution talk about this theme. They not only avoid it, but deny it, and in some cases think it is justified,” said Jina Sargizova, the UNFPA “Combating Gender Based Violence in the South Caucasus” programme coordinator.

According to the survey conducted by the programme, only 15 per cent of victims were prepared to reveal details of violence against them.

“Women refuse to speak about this theme, however, with the help of various indirect questions we managed to reveal that this problem is pretty massive,” Sargizova said.

“The main reason why women cannot put an end to this situation and get a divorce is shame. Financial dependence is also an important factor, but shame remains in first place.”

According to an Amnesty International Survey from 2008, a third of Armenian women have been beaten in the home, and two-thirds have come under psychological pressure. Other surveys confirmed that at least a quarter of the violence took place in front of children.

Sargizova said, however, that society did seem to be moving towards a greater awareness of the extent of the problem.

“From a complete denial, when, at the lowest and the highest parts of society, there was an insistence that such a problem simply did not exist, we have reached an acceptance of the existence of a problem, and also a search for a way to solve it,” she said.

It is a view shared by Susanna Vardanyan, director of the Centre for Women’s Rights, which was founded 12 years ago. The centre initiated a draft law on domestic violence, which has been examined by officials from relevant ministries and the police.

“Five years ago, we could not even have said that. High-ranking officials would just have laughed and said such a problem did not exist in Armenia, that these were just isolated cases but now many are even ready to support the adoption of the law,” she said.

Two years ago, the government approved a programme to create shelters and to give assistance to female victims of violence, although the implementation of the programme was postponed because of the financial crisis. Up to now, such steps were only taken by non-governmental and donor organisations.

The United States government agency USAID helped create four refuges in 2001, but they did not survive the end of its programme, and only the shelter run by the Centre for Women’s Rights still exists.

In February this year, the government agreed that a commission would be set up to research how to improve sexual equality.

“After the adoption of a law on gender equality, it will be a lot easier to make changes in the legal field, and also to adopt laws making domestic violence a criminal offence. We are currently at the beginning of the road, although the existence of political will is important,” Sargizova said.

Such an initiative appears to be winning acceptance outside the circle of women’s activists.

“From a historical point of view, we are a civilised country, but today there is no gender equality in our society, and in many spheres women have been stripped of the possibility of realising their rights,” Artsvik Minasyan, a parliament deputy from the Dashnaktsutyun party, said.

And even priests have come on board – an important consideration in the oldest Christian country on earth.  Some 20 priests, who took part in the UN’s work on gender equality, have begun to preach not only of the importance of maintaining the family, but also have used bible quotations to argue that men and women are equal, and violence is unacceptable.

“Of course, this problem exists and women even appeal to us for help finding a solution, and it was necessary for us to get additional knowledge,” Father Vigen Martirosyan said.

“Immunity gives birth to crime. A real man will never raise his hand to a woman, and I repeat this in all my sermons and private talks.”

Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter from Armenianow.

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