‘It’s been three years, but the wounds and bruises still haven’t stopped. When I hear his voice, my body quivers from fear that this time he will kill me.’ These harrowing words were displayed on a banner in Yerevan's Republic Square as part of a recent demonstration supporting the adoption of a domestic violence law in Armenia. Alongside the banners lay shoes—a grim reminder of the women killed in domestic violence.
Women in Armenia are habitually subjected to violence and abuse, most of which goes unrecognised. Here, domestic violence is ignored both by state and society—it is considered a personal issue, not a political one—and because of this, according to human rights activists, no major steps are being taken to prevent acts of domestic violence or protect survivors of abuse.
Women in Armenia are habitually subjected to violence and abuse, most of which goes unrecognised
Each year, women’s rights organisations record more than 2,000 incidents of domestic violence. According to official police data, the number of domestic violence cases registered in the first half of 2015 reached 447. These numbers are likely far lower than the reality: most women do not turn to the police to report violence experienced in the home.
‘Even if I kill you, I will not be punished, you know how many connections I have. If you divorce me, you will never see the children again. You have no rights, you can't do anything to get away from me,’ this is how Hasmik Khachatryan, a young survivor of domestic violence, recalls how her husband used to talk to her.
Hasmik was spoken to this way every time she was beaten up and tortured by her husband. The mother of two suffered from this abuse for nine years until two years ago, in 2013, she found the strength to escape from her husband and to fight for her rights.
‘He would humiliate me and beat for any minor reason. At first, he would beat me using his hands, then he started using his feet as well. Later, he would beat me with anything he could get his hands on. If I said I wanted to leave him, he would become furious and even more violent; he would hit my legs so that I couldn’t move. He always used to say: “If I kill you, I will hang you and say you went insane and committed suicide.”’
'Who is next?' A public action by the Coalition to Stop Violence against Women, 12 July 2012.The day she fled her abuser, Hasmik hid in the village river for a whole night. She was scared that her husband would find her and make good on his promise to kill her.
The Court of First Instance in Gegharkunik province sentenced Hasmik’s husband to one and a half years inprisonment, but he received amnesty and was released. This man, who was proven to have tortured his wife for nine years, didn't spend a single day in prison.
Hasmik’s case belies the broader situation. ‘Domestic violence is not punished in Armenia, it is not considered a serious crime. The rejection to adopt a law on domestic violence in 2013 shows that there is no political will and no understanding that domestic violence is not only a crime against women, but a crime against society as a whole,’ says Lara Aharonyan, the co-founder and director of Women’s Resource Center Armenia.
According to Aharonyan, in the past few years there have been numerous cases where the perpetrators of domestic violence were either left unpunished or given minor punishments. One of the few instances where justice prevailed was the murder case of 20-year-old Zaruhi Petrosyan, who was killed by her husband in 2010.
There is no political will and no understanding that domestic violence is not only a crime against women, but a crime against society as a whole
But as Aharonyan suggests, ‘This unfortunately goes to show that a woman can only access justice in Armenia once she has been murdered.’
Indeed, according to an Amnesty International report from 2008, every third woman in Armenia is subjected to at least one form of domestic violence. Over the past five years, 30 women have been killed in Armenia as a result of domestic violence. This included eight women in 2015 alone, resulting in 45 children being left without their mothers.
A passer-by attends a public action supporting the adoption of a domestic violence law, 1 October 2015. Activists aren't taking this situation lying down. For instance, in order to break the silence surrounding domestic violence and to coax the state into action, members of the Armenian Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women staged a 12-hour-long protest on 1 October of this year at Yerevan's Republic Square.
‘Three years ago, we declared 1 October National Day against Domestic Violence. This was the day that Zaruhi [Petrosyan] was brutally murdered by her husband,’ Nvard Margaryan, a member of President of PINK Armenia says, referring to the murder of the 20-year old in 2010.
Margaryan highlights that the death of Zaruhi, though unbelievably sad, was important: it caught the attention of both national and international media, securing focus on the issue of domestic violence in Armenia.
As a result, people started to talk about this phenomenon and many survivors of violence began to raise their voices and speak up.
Empowering women in this way seems to lead to tangible results. Members of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, especially the Women’s Support Center, made Hasmik Khachatryan believe in herself again. Activists attended every court hearing in Hasmik’s trial in Gavar city as support, often protesting in front of the court building. Hasmik’s struggle and bravery were widely applauded and in June of this year she was the recipient of the ‘Woman of Courage’ award.
As Hasmik accepted the award, she spoke with confidence: ‘I want to say to all women that you can protect your rights and interests and never give up, because a light is always found and it gives us strength to live a decent life. I know it from my own experience.’
Domestic violence law
One of the primary demands of activists in Armenia is a domestic violence law to protect women in abusive relationships. But a draft version of this law was rejected by the Armenian government in early 2013.
The reason given for this rejection was the financial incapacity of the state to implement the law and open shelters for women. Women’s rights activists argue that the cost of domestic violence actually far exceeds the cost of its prevention mechanisms. And if you start to look a little closer at some of the government's more controversial expenditures, the argument that there is not enough money to protect women from domestic violence soon begins to break down.
If you start to look a little closer at some of the government's more controversial expenditures, the argument that there is not enough money to protect women from domestic violence soon begins to break down
For example, in 2015 the government of Armenia decided to refurbish three of its conference halls: 241 million Armenian drams (around $510,000) were spent on gilding and acquisition of new furniture for the halls. Another 43 million drams ($91,000) were spent on the ‘urgent’ renovation activities (mostly gilding). Finally, seven million drams ($14,800) were spent on new carpets. In total, almost 300 million drams (approx. $635,000) were spent on refurbishing three government conference halls.
Hasmik Khachatryan, a survivor of domestic violence, receives the 'Women of Courage' award at the Universal Rights Award Ceremony in June 2015.Had the government decided to renovate only two of these conference halls, they would have had enough money remaining to sustain the operations of a small and modest shelter for survivors of domestic violence for at least one year.
But alas, protecting women against violence is not a government priority in the way that refurbishing conference halls is.
So if it’s not money that’s stopping the Armenian government from adopting the law, what is?
To answer this, it would perhaps be prudent to look at the make-up of our parliament, the National Assembly, and what these people think about domestic violence.
Out of 131 MPs in Armenia’s parliament, 13 are female. And of these 13 female MPs, none actively promote the fight against domestic violence.
As for the other MPs, most believe that there is no need for a law on domestic violence. According to Artashes Geghamyan, a member of the Republican Party faction, ‘there are bigger problems to be addressed.’ Other MPs, like Mher Sedrakyan, believe that if a woman is ‘immoral’ her husband should both beat and divorce her. Others, like Eduard Sharmazanov, vice-speaker of the National Assembly, maintain that there is no such thing as domestic violence in Armenia because ‘Armenians love their mothers.’
Last year Vardan Ayvazyan, a member of the Republican Party remarked to female MP Zaruhi Postanjyan during one of the hearings at the National Assembly, that a ‘woman should not interfere in a conversation between men.’ A few short months prior to this, former MP Ruben Hayrapetyan claimed that ‘Armenian men and women should not be equal [because] it is not normal’ and that ‘an Armenian man would never allow his daughter to play football.’ And earlier this year, Armenia’s Minister of Agriculture publicly compared women with potatoes; just like a trader must sell his potatoes to the very first buyer, so too a father must marry his daughter off to the first man who proposes.
With MPs like this, is it little wonder that Armenia has so far failed to adopt a domestic violence law. How many women must be killed for Armenia’s politicians to acknowledge the very existence of domestic violence?
The answer to this question is not yet clear. But it is an unquestionable truth that if Armenia had a domestic violence law, the number of shoes displayed on Republic Square earlier this year would have been drastically lower.
Standfirst image: (c) Armenian Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women.