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“Pass a law, even if it’s a bad one”: how Armenia is tackling domestic violence

Two years on since Armenia passed a domestic violence law, it’s time to look at how it’s being implemented.

Maria Koltsova
21 January 2020
'Who is next?' A public action by the Coalition to Stop Violence against Women, 12 July 2012

In 2017, Armenia passed a new law on domestic violence. The law’s passage through Armenia’s National Assembly was marked by heated disputes between women’s rights advocates and supporters of the “traditional family”. The influence of conservative groups was even reflected in the law’s name: “On the Prevention of Domestic Violence, Protection of Victims of Violence and Restoration of Peace in the Family”.

Two years on, the issue of gender equality has resurfaced, as Armenia may decide to ratify the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe convention against gender-based violence. Armenia signed the Convention in 2018 - under the regime of president Serzh Sargsyan, who resigned amidst mass protests in 2019 - but has not yet ratified it.

Here, Zara Hovhannisyan, a journalist, human rights activist and member of Armenia’s Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, talks about the origins of Armenia’s domestic violence law - and the reality of its implementation.

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Zara Hovhannisyan | Source: Zara Hovhannisan

How did Armenia’s domestic violence come about? As far as I know, activists fought for it for a long time.

In 2007, one of the organisations which is now part of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women – the Women’s Rights Centre – started to work on a draft bill on the prevention of domestic violence. They spent a year to eighteen months on this work, before starting to lobby for the law to be passed.

The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women then improved it, but since we were working in a pretty negative environment, it took until 2013 for the draft to be presented to the National Assembly. As could be expected, the National Assembly rejected it.

They said it was too costly, we didn’t get to discussions on family values. But in 2017, after the government itself initiated the bill, there was a lot of talk about the collapse of the traditional Armenian family. But they had to make at least some moves, because there were so many cases of domestic violence, every international report said “Armenia has no law [on domestic violence], there are no ways of preventing domestic violence, and this is why the police doesn’t react.” [OSCE data shows that 60% of Armenian women have experienced domestic violence at least once – ed.]

Did a grant to Armenia from the European Commission, dependent on the law being passed, make a difference?

In 2017 the European Commission put it bluntly: if you don’t pass the law, there will be no human rights grant. And because of that the parliamentarians started moving and in 2017 started serious work on a draft bill.

Were civil rights activists and NGO workers consulted on the wording?

The parliamentary deputies began with a draft put together by the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, and had a lot of consultation with public civil society figures. But in the end, nationalist groups wielded a lot of influence, and there was much discussion of how “this law will destroy everything”. The wording of the law was, in fact, fundamentally changed immediately before it was passed: they said that there were various strands of opinion that needed to be taken into account. Even in parliament there were, and still are, incompetent people who believe that the law could subvert family values.

In the end, the wording of the law retained some nationalist and patriarchal elements. It states that the law has been passed in order to maintain “family harmony” and the text mentions the preservation of the “traditional family”. But there are no definitions of these terms, and the law’s core values have shifted as a result.

We tried to have some influence on the issue, but there wasn’t time. Our proposals were ignored, and we had no support from MPs. And those MPs who have tried to challenge public opinion have been compromised to the extent that they are refusing to make any statements. Now it’s also clear that the same thing is happening with the Istanbul Convention. It was the same in 2013, when a law on gender equality was mooted. Everyone said, “What’s ‘gender’, what kind of word is that, how can you talk about it in Armenia?”

Our preliminary draft was aimed at stopping domestic violence, but the third part of the law, as eventually passed, is beyond comment.

Our government should be protecting the public against violence, not trying to preserve the family at all costs

This is the part about mediation? Can you say more about what that is and how it works?

That’s right, it’s about mediation, and in fact it’s unacceptable in general. Our government should be protecting the public against violence, not trying to preserve the family at all costs. The law allows three kinds of protection order. If someone who has experienced domestic violence goes to the police for the first time, the perpetrator receives an official warning; for the second time – or if the violence is serious – the police intervene immediately and the person who has committed the violence can be expelled from his home for 20 days.

A third order, reserved for the most serious situations, means an appearance in court. The first thing the judge usually asks is, “Can you get back together?” So you have the victim of domestic abuse sitting in the courtroom with her abuser – and they’re saying to her: “Come on, you have two kids, make it up”. This is completely unacceptable. It isn’t just a squabble, it’s violence – it’s ridiculous to talk about getting back together.

In any case, the maximum consequence of this third type of protection order is a six-month ban on communication with the victim, with two possible three-month extensions of the ban. But who’s going to monitor this? It’s just down to the police again, so the law isn’t effective. In Armenia we don’t have wristbands to monitor the perpetrator’s movements: the woman has to go to the police and make a complaint. It’s all completely ineffective.

How does this happen in practice? Supposing a woman calls the police and says: “My husband has beaten me on several occasions, and I’m afraid he’ll do it again. He shouts and swears at me. Will the cops turn up and give him a slap on the wrist?”

That’s basically what happens. The Istanbul Convention refers to that kind of situation. Mediation is just not acceptable, because after the police leave the situation will just deteriorate further. No one does any real work with the abuser – who mediates with whom? The man hasn’t changed. It’s an impossible situation.

The state has no right to interfere in people’s private lives. Get divorced if you want, or don’t if you don’t want to: the main thing is that the woman is safe and sound. And whether a family continues its existence has nothing to do with the state

The second point is that the state has no right to interfere in people’s private lives. Get divorced if you want, or don’t if you don’t want to: the main thing is that the woman is safe and sound. And whether a family continues its existence has nothing to do with the state. The state uses mediation to interfere in people’s private lives and attempt to perpetuate a family, rather than a woman’s health and happiness. The law is lopsided: it doesn’t help to prevent domestic violence – it’s only interested in protecting the integrity of the family. At an international level we can say that we do have a law that deals with the issue, but no one can say what the law is about and how it works.

At what point do serious consequences kick in? Arrest, for example?

In Armenia, domestic abuse hasn’t been criminalised, even though the appropriate legislation has been passed. Arrests only take place if there has been serious bodily harm and the woman has ended up in hospital or even been murdered. But even then, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. There was, for example, the terrible murder of Diana Nahapetyan, for which her husband served only three and a half years in jail. For physical violence, the usual punishment is 100,000-200,000 dram [300-400 euros – ed.] – which is very little. You can beat your wife, pay your fine and go on and do it again.

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Street action in memory of victims of domestic violence | Source: Zara Hovhannisyan

How does the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women work?

The Coalition was founded in 2010, after the death of 20 year-old Zaruya Petrosyan at the hands of her husband. Now we have 10 member organisations, with two more joining in the near future. We all work together to fight against domestic violence and various types of discrimination. The organisations are very varied, from those that work with women in general to those who specialise in work with women living with HIV.. Our profiles are all different, but our paths all cross: there is, after all, such a thing as double discrimination, or even treble. It’s easier to work together at the state level, although there are issues here as well.

What legislation is there in Armenia to regulate domestic violence issues, if only indirectly?

Armenia’s Criminal Code covers issues of physical and sexual abuse, and there is legislation providing for penalties against forced selective abortion, where a pregnancy is terminated because it will result in the birth of a girl: most men in Armenia would prefer the birth of sons to those of daughters.

The problem is that cases of violence are seen as isolated incidents: a man beats his wife, and that’s that – economic and psychological factors, for example, or other aspects of the situation aren’t taken into account.

What were the proposals that you put forward, that weren’t adopted? What didn’t make the final version but you feel should have been there?

We had, for example, put forward the concept of stalking. We also suggested extending the definition of domestic violence to partners – abuse of unmarried partners. But none of that was included, as there was another fuss around language – the idea of partnering, they said, could only apply to same-sex couples. They did, however include our proposal about a form of abuse - “neglect”, which mainly affects children and older people, whose families ignore their needs – special treatments, care, diet, studies.

The law also includes the need to increase the number of crisis centres. Is something happening in this area?

After the law was passed, six state-funded crisis centres were set up in Armenia, and in 12 months’ time there should be centres, usually staffed by just one psychologist and one social worker, in every region. The centres aren’t, however open at night, so in emergencies women have to be put up in shelters. This year, our Coalition has also been running training sessions for social workers, raising their awareness of issues, such as domestic violence, that they haven’t had to work with before now.

The police used to arrive at people’s homes and say, “He’s your husband – put up with him”. Now they aren’t allowed to do that. Large numbers of police officers have gone on courses and learned about domestic violence and now they have to pass tests on knowledge of the law

We now have two shelters, organised by NGOs, with space for five women and their children in each. They are always overcrowded, but do their utmost to provide for needs – laying out mattresses on floors, for example, so that their wards can sleep. And the shelters aren’t just for sleeping in: their volunteers run classes to improve literacy to help women find work, and also help them find flats and schools for their children. This is the ideal, but women often leave shelters and return to their husbands. Sometimes a shelter takes the same woman eight times in a row – we never turn anyone away. No one says, “You’re hopeless, we looked after you and it was no use – you went back to your husband and now you’re asking us for help again”. It’s a serious psychological problem, and it’s not easy to solve.

Do women often return to their husbands, and why?

The first reason is a psychological one: many women find it really difficult to leave their husbands. The second is economic: if someone can’t support herself and her children, she goes back to her abuser. And the third reason is children. The bodies dealing with children in need lack professionalism. When deciding which parent should have the custody of children after a divorce, they look at their financial situation. Whichever has a flat and a car gets the kids. And as it’s usually the husband who has the advantage there, the children stay with him. So the wife has to make a choice and she thinks, “What if I can never get the kids back, and I can’t find a job, and I’ll never have my own flat?”

Also, the people who take decisions about these things usually have positions in local authorities and we know well enough that, in a family where there is domestic violence the woman has little contact with official bodies, whilst the man may well have and so can influence those decisions. Not to mention the risk of corruption.

Are there any recent statistics on domestic abuse victims going to the police?

There are police statistics for ten months of last year. There were 2682 call-outs connected with domestic violence, most of them ending in cautions. In 2019 there were 84 reported incidences of violence against women’s sexual freedoms and sexual immunity, as against 77 in 2018.

Our system isn’t particularly sensitive: it doesn’t understand the full range of issues around domestic violence. And even if the police have some grasp of work with it, the courts can undo all their good work.

Do you feel that the new law has given women more confidence to raise their issues?

Yes, definitely. The police used to arrive at people’s homes and say, “He’s your husband – put up with him”. Now they aren’t allowed to do that. Large numbers of police officers have gone on courses and learned about domestic violence and now they have to pass tests on knowledge of the law. When the phone rings, they ask whether there is violence in the family or not, and if there is, a special squad is sent out to deal with the situation.

Our coalition hotline receives over 5,000 calls a year, more than the police do because women fear that getting the police involved will only make things worse. If a police officer walks into someone’s home, a husband will realise that his wife has called the cops. But when a woman calls an NGO hotline, she can get confidential advice and help. Which doesn’t mean that her problems are solved: this requires the introduction of serious penalties.

The people who disapproved of the law on domestic violence are now opposing Armenia’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Is there any link here to references to LGBTQ+ rights?

The term “partner” appears there – a term that doesn’t exist in Armenian legislation. So everyone immediately imagines that the term can only refer to same-sex relationships, whereas it applies to any relationship outside marriage, including the period between an engagement and a wedding. If a fiancé shows violence against his fiancée, what then? This can’t be domestic violence, because they don’t have the appropriate stamps on their ID cards and don’t live together.

This year there was a case where a man killed a woman who had twice spent time in our shelter. He wasn’t her husband, but they were partners. The police didn’t get involved because the concept of domestic abuse supposedly doesn’t apply to partner relations. But we keep telling people about this case: how else could she be protected?

Are many activists involved in supporting women?

Not many, because we are vulnerable: they threaten us; say that we break up families. No one talks about the hard work we do and how we rescue women from nightmare situations.

What, after all has the law on domestic violence managed to do over the last year?

What it has done is that it has allowed women to phone the police. You could say that we now have a law and it can always be improved upon. In the year before last, we held a consultation with colleagues in Georgia, where a similar law was passed a decade ago. It was laughable, covering just two or three pages, but they said, “Pass a law, even if it’s a bad one”. It’s always easier to improve a law than to pass one. The Georgians spent ten years improving theirs, and now they have a very good law that complies with every international standard. And they have also ratified the Istanbul Convention.

We now already have a rough draft of how we can improve our law. Our government has also approved our proposed amendments, and they are now open for public discussion. We have added a paragraph on partnership relations and one on stalking. The process is under way, and we have high hopes of it moving in the right direction.

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