Increasingly the issue of domestic violence in Armenia is a topic for public discussion. Yet, greater attention to the issue isn’t yet translating into an expansion of programs to alleviate suffering and address policy shortcomings.
In 2012, Armenia set a grim record for domestic violence when six women, ranging in age from 21 to 50 years old, died over the course of six months in incidents involving their husbands or fathers-in-law. Collectively, the six dead women left behind 12 children. No official registry of domestic-violence attacks exists in Armenia. But a 2008 survey of 1,000 Armenian women by Amnesty International found that more than three out of 10 had suffered from physical abuse, and 66 percent from psychological abuse.
The outcry over the recent deaths prompted activists to believe that the government would start making state funds available for the protection and treatment of victims of domestic violence. But on January 21, the government blocked passage of what would have been the country’s first domestic-violence law, saying that revisions should be made to existing legislation, or to the bill itself.
In the absence of government funding, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are struggling to meet needs. “There are many cases, and only NGO efforts do not suffice,” commented Susanna Vardanian, director of the Women’s Rights Center, a Yerevan-based NGO, which is a backer of the stalled draft law.
At present, three private domestic-violence shelters (two in Yerevan and one in the nearby region of Armavir), along with several NGO-run hotlines are all that exist for female domestic violence victims. Over the past two years, the Women’s Rights Center, which runs two hotlines, four regional crisis centers and one shelter, has received some 2,557 calls from women seeking help, according to Vardanian.
At a facility run by the charitable foundation Lighthouse in the village of Ptghunts, the 55 women residents are mostly unemployed, and either pregnant or raising children. The shelter provides basic job training, as well as psychological counselling.
For decades, domestic violence was a topic that not only battered women, but also officials and law-enforcement authorities shied away from acknowledging or discussing. But now, that has begun to change, with people starting to be held accountable for abusive actions.
For example, Haykanush Mikayelian received a 10-month sentence in 2012 for her role in the abuse of her 23-year-old daughter-in-law, Mariam Gevorgian, over a prolonged period starting in 2009. According to testimony at the trial, Mikayelian burned Gevorgian’s body with an iron and a cigarette lighter, beat her regularly and kept her locked indoors under key.
Although police officers are arguably now more aware of the domestic-violence problem than several years ago, they are often left flummoxed by the lack of state-run shelters and legal mechanisms to prevent ongoing abuse of a woman by a husband or relative.
“As soon as it comes to taking actual steps, we seem to be faced with the same resistance,” remarked Lara Aharomian, director of the Women’s Resource Center, another Yerevan-based NGO active in addressing domestic violence.
The draft domestic-violence law that the government rejected earlier in January would have tried to strengthen official measures to protect victims by introducing restraining orders and expanding the number of shelters, among other measures.
Activists believe that the six fatal domestic-violence cases in 2012 might have been prevented if Armenia had had a law outlining responses to the abuse, and, correspondingly, providing state assistance for shelters. “[T]he law proposes the creation of a number of facilities, [and the] training of police, which are preventive measures,” said Anna Nikoghosian, a project manager for the non-governmental organization A Society Without Violence. If shelters had existed near the homes of the six murdered women, all of whom lived outside of Yerevan, “some . . . might be alive today.”
“There are many badly in need of support, but it is impossible to house all of them in only three shelters,” agreed Lighthouse Director Naira Muradian.
Lala Ghazarian, head of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare’s Department for Family, Women and Childcare Issues, stressed that the domestic-violence bill isn’t gone for good. “It just needs some changes” to bring it into line with existing criminal law, she said. “We are all well aware that we need a law, shelter, trained policemen, functional tools, but it implies extensive work to change legislation, and it will be done.”
Some government members have said that parliament, now controlled by the Republican Party of Armenia, could pass a domestic-violence law by 2014 or 2015, once ongoing amendments to the criminal code are complete.
Meanwhile, as the topic’s stigma fades away, many ordinary Armenians affirm openly that they are eager to find solutions. In the village of Burastan, 30 kilometers outside of Yerevan, women in 2006 told EurasiaNet.org that questions about domestic violence “destroy traditional Armenian families.” Seven years later, they admitted that abuse is an issue that “has to be addressed.”
“Our children have been growing up in an atmosphere of beatings and fights,” commented 67-year-old Karine Galstian, a mother of four. “Only now we realize how wrong it is to keep silent, because we should at least teach our daughters that the husband has to respect his wife, should not beat her, should not humiliate her in front of the children.”
In the absence of further government measures against domestic violence, such realizations could make a critical difference.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.