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Heated debates around domestic violence in Armenia

Civil society includes many NGOs that are not only conservative but are financed by Russia, and seem to be on a mission to impede Armenia from any rapprochement with Europe.  Interview.

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lead Maro at a public consultation which erupted into a physical confrontation between the critics and defenders of the bill. Author's own photo. All rights reserved.Women’s rights NGOs have been campaigning for the passage of the domestic violence bill for many years.  As the Armenian National Assembly debates the bill, there have been heated debates between the defenders and critics.  Defenders of the bill argue that a law on domestic violence is needed to prevent and tackle abuse, while critics argue that the bill is an attempt to undermine Armenian family values. 

Below is an interview conducted by Armine Ishkanian with one of the key campaigners for the bill, Maro Matosian, the Executive Director of the Women’s Support Center NGO in Armenia. She has worked over two decades in the non-profit sector in Armenia and is an activist and feminist in defence of civil society in Armenia working with and for environmentalists, protection of public spaces and historic monuments, women, and the rights of other marginalized  groups. 

Armine Ishkanian (AI): Can you briefly tell me about the domestic violence bill in Armenia and why there have been such heated debates around it?

Maro Matosian (MM):  To understand what is happening today, I need to give you some background on what has happened so far.  Advocating the passing of  the domestic violence law in Armenia has been the work  of  women’s rights NGOs in Armenia.  In 2006 various organizations and international experts drafted the law which was not adopted at that stage. Then came the murder of 21-year old Zaruhi Petrosyan in 2010 by her husband, which drew a great deal of public attention inside Armenia and in the diaspora. 

Following on from Zaruhi’s murder, we formed the Coalition to Stop Violence against Women and have since stepped up our campaigning to include raising awareness of domestic violence.  This is still an issue often seen as taboo and not to be discussed publically.  Until Zaruhi’s murder, no case of domestic violence had ever received that level of publicity or attention.  Now we mark Oct 1 as Domestic Violence Remembrance Day – the day that Zaruhi was murdered.   

In 2012-2013 the Women’s Support Center NGO had two  very high profile cases that produced a further breakthrough in the silence and taboo around this topic. Ever since then, the media has started to report more cases and instances, having on average 20-30 news items per month regarding DV in Armenia. In 2013, the Ministry of Justice made certain recommendations that the bill was not in compliance with certain points in the constitution and the penal code.  We made the revisions and submitted it again but then there was silence. 

Finally, in 2017 the latest bill was presented by Ministry of Justice, which is by and large what we presented except for some very important elements. 

AA: So why now? 

MM: Well, Armenia signed and ratified various international conventions like the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) some  years back, by which it is obligated to adopt a law on domestic violence. Furthermore, Armenia is about to sign a partnership agreement with the EU which introduced certain conditions whereby Armenia must improve and be in compliance with ratified conventions. So now the government is rushing to adopt the DV law and wants to be transparent and inclusive of civil society.  However, civil society also includes many NGOs and organizations that are not only conservative but they are financed by Russia. This is well-documented. And they seem to be on a mission to impede Armenia from any rapprochement with Europe.

So, on the one hand we have these very vocal and very virulent Russian-backed organizations who had a great impact on discussions of the bill on gender equality, and who succeeded in taking the word ‘gender ‘out of the law by defining gender as encompassing homosexuality and paedophilia.  These campaigns of disinformation and fear-mongering among the population are done by one group in particular, the “ Pan Armenian Parent’s Committee” NGO, whose mission is to appoint themselves, “In protection of family and family values”.  Some of their propaganda is couched in Russian and even deploys some of the same PR materials that we see also in Moldova and Ukraine. 

A press conference for the pro-Russian group. All rights reserved. They have been very effective because for many in Armenia the family is sacred and spreading fears at that level can catch on very fast in a society where these topics such as domestic violence, sexual assault , rape,  and incest have never before been publically discussed, which makes it incredibly difficult to address them and combat the disinformation.  Also Armenian society is patriarchal with many deep-rooted gender stereotypes: the leadership is profoundly misogynistic which also feeds into the hysteria.  So, the women’s rights organizations, which have limited resources, have been the only ones talking about the issue.  What pains me the most are the so called progressives who are also misogynists.

AI: Who (i.e., which actors or segments of society) are against the bill? And why are they against it?

MM: The Armenian government, officials, or the clergy for that matter have never condemned domestic violence publically. Hence we have a segment of society that is uninformed or misinformed who cannot understand the content of the bill and thus tend to believe the lies they hear. They believe for example that  the law will enable the government to take children away from their families and place them in orphanages where they might be turned into gays or become the victims of those who will sell their organs. 

Such absurdities are believed by many. It is the same reason why even lawmakers in Parliament do not understand aspects of the bill and are capable of propagating completely erroneous information. The bill is a document that is understood primarily only by specialists in the field and lawmakers.  It is the duty of government and civil society to properly explain what it contains in lay terms. However, because of the conservative, Russian-backed elements in civil society and a complete distrust of the Armenian government , this cannot take place. Unfortunately journalists  and professionals, like psychologists and social workers, are equally uninformed and ignorant.

AI: Why is it important for this bill to pass and become law?

MM: First , it is a preventive  law that also protects the victim. Secondly, the law will enable women’s rights NGO to  put pressure on the government to monitor the implementation, and to be held accountable.  Government is  required  to report to CEDAW and  to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) which  involves a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States.  Women rights NGOs offer a shadow report and provide recommendations.  This is an important tool to monitor the implementation of the law so it does not just remain on paper.   Lastly, the law is a step forward in advancing  social justice and human rights  and making the legislative field more in tune to European standards.  This is a step that Russia vehemently fights against.  As we know for example Russia adopted a law which decriminalizes   moderate  domestic violence  abuse which can be very subjectively interpreted.  

AI: Who are your allies in Armenia?

MM: Actually, human rights NGOs  in Armenia have not been outspoken about the passage of this law.  They could have done more.  I know so many organizations, think tanks, professionals that are for this law but for some reason they don’t voice their support out loud. When we speak with people and especially women they all express support for the law. My office as well as the offices of other women’s rights NGOs have been bombarded by the media for interviews on this topic. By now, thanks to years of good work and empowering victims we had several survivors that gave testimony and one also at a parliament hearing. When we speak with people and especially women they all express support for the law.

However, it is amazing how some people speak for social justice, and human rights, anti-corruption, but when it comes to women’s rights there is silence.  I feel there is a double standard.

AI: What about allies beyond Armenia, such as Armenians in the diaspora?

MM: In the diaspora too, even though it has been better over the last 2-3 years – people from Turkey have certainly raised the issues around social justice, but when it comes to social justice in Armenia there are not too many voices out there. Part of it is because diasporans are uninformed about internal policies and laws: but there is also a double standard. 

On a positive note, since I am from the diaspora and have toured extensively for years to bring this issue to the attention of diasporans, we now we have a great support base.  A letter is circulating collecting signatures in support of the law and a petition was started on change.org for the same purpose which is addressed to the Prime Minister.   

I am happy to say that Armenians from the US, France, UK, Lebanon and Turkey have signed.  This is perhaps the first time that individuals from the diaspora are taking a proactive position on an Armenian domestic policy. People actually feel that this is a no-brainer and are genuinely revolted by the extent of domestic violence in Armenia (1 in 4 women is a victim of abuse). Also it does not require a  political position.  In other words, this isn’t seen as a political issue like some other issues.

So, what we are now seeing is that even institutions which used to avoid discussing domestic violence are changing.

For instance, while in the past the Armenian Apostolic Church was promoting the subservience of women who were urged not to break up their families, now they are starting to take a more supportive position for the adoption of such a law saying that love must prevail in families, not abuse. Also some political parties, such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), which was against the law in the past is now  on board.  Both the Church and ARF are very much in tune with the Republican party, the ruling party in Armenia, which indicates that the views of the ruling elites are also changing with regard to this issue.     

AI: Playing devil’s advocate, some will say that getting the bill through is not going to change attitudes or behaviours. Have you seen any attitudinal changes happening among a younger generation of Armenians?

MM: Of course things do not change overnight. However, in any society, the existence of legislation is a strong message that abuse is not accepted or tolerated.  This also helps with changing attitudes.  International practice shows that while changing laws and policies and women’s access to resources requires sustained advocacy and pressure for implementation, they are still easier to achieve when there is a law in place.  International practice shows that attitudes are still easier to change when there is a law in place.

The shift in the belief system, dismantling dangerous gender stereotypes embedded in cultural and societal norms in both women and men is a much more difficult and lengthy process. But we have to do it if we want to have a healthy society, to  empower women, to educate our youth with positive values, and to have healthy families. Unless women believe that they have a right to live a life free of abuse, that they should not be stigmatized, then they will not report violence. If the police think that an abused woman “asked for it” in some way then they will fail to record the crime or to refer her to crisis centres or shelters. 

So we all have to tackle people’s consciousness and cultural norms , if not then yes, the law will not be enough. 

Changing attitudes is a very difficult and longterm endeavour. Special trainings are necessary for it, and a lot of professional PR must happen at the state level.  The more we talk about it the more people will realize that this is not acceptable behavior, and women will know that there is a way out. Then the stigma for leaving an abusive relationship will diminish. 

A DV survivor giving evidence in parliament. All rights reserved. Yes, there is still a lot of work ahead of us.  In the educational system, text books and teachers are promoting gender stereotypes even unconsciously, also TV programs and soap operas do the same, as well as politicians.  The entire society must change its attitudes. What pains me the most are the so called progressives who are also misogynists. 

AI: When I was doing research on domestic violence in Armenia about 10 years ago, one of the concerns I had was that there was little investment to support survivors beyond giving them temporary shelter in refuges. Is anything being done to address that gap and to provide support for those who leave an abusive relationship?

MM: You are right.  At the institutional level there is no support. Even the confidentiality and the safety of the victim is not protected. We hope that mechanisms accompanying this law will address some of those issues. However, some survivors must rent a room to live away from the abuser. Many find low paid jobs and it is very difficult to sustain themselves.

But a good social worker can help a lot. For example, 80% of our survivors are able to live a life free of abuse and do not return to the abuser. But we need support at the institutional level including low income or subsidized housing, medical insurance since many victims have serious medical problems from the trauma they suffered, etc. 

If our social workers are able to find solutions for the survivors in Yerevan, the situation is dire in the provinces where there are no employment prospects. Much remains to be done to provide more support to those women who leave abusive relationships. The situation is dire in the provinces where there are no employment prospects.  

AI: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MM: The present law has been quite diluted and is not in compliance with the Istanbul Convention

We hope that in the future we can introduce amendments that can address these concerns. Also, it will be very important for women’s rights NGOs to remain vigilant. Not only to monitor the implementation of the law, but we are also very concerned that service providers who are not properly trained will interact with victims and create more damage.

The passage of the bill is the first step. It is an important one, but we have much more work to do to address the problems I discussed earlier about the changes in societal attitudes, gender stereotypes, and last but not least, the development of more institutional support for survivors.

How to cite:
Matosian M., Ishkanian A.(2017) Heated debates around domestic violence in Armenia, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 3 November. https://opendemocracy.net/armine-ishkanian-maro-matosian/heated-debates-around-domestic-violence-in-armenia

About the authors

Armine Ishkanian is Associate Professor at the London School of Economics. She has expertise in civil society, democratisation, gender, and development in the post-socialist countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

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