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UN Committee Review Unmasks Serious Violations of Women’s Rights in Armenia

Special for the Armenian Weekly

The Armenian government ratified the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1993 and is periodically reviewed by the CEDAW Committee to make sure their policies and programs are in line with the convention, which sets legally binding obligations for States parties and international standards for gender equality.

Armenian civil society representatives with colleagues from IWRAW Asia Pacific after their lunch briefing with UN Committee members in Geneva

In March 2014 Armenian State parties submitted a country report to the Committee. In response, civil society representatives worked diligently on shadow and alternative reports over the course of the whole year to fact check and bring to light human rights abuses based on their observations, which required months of research, writing, editing, and compiling data from various NGOs working on gender issues in Armenia. We all spent tireless hours on the reports, feeling a sense of responsibility to accurately represent the situation on the ground and push for reform to create positive change for the country.

Following the submission of the reports, the CEDAW Committee is tasked with consulting representatives from government, international organizations, and civil society at the UN House in Geneva over several rounds. Armenia’s turn came during the first week of November. Our civil society delegation, in preparation to lobby the Committee, spent sleepless nights preparing what we would say. It was certainly difficult to develop statements that voiced our concerns as one unified delegation, as we represented a large network of organizations with varied interests, but we were able to work through those challenges to solidify our message and eloquently deliver it to the Committee.

Over a one-week period, we presented our oral statement to the Committee and invited them to a lunch briefing, where we spoke more in-depth about all the issues presented in our reports as well as important new developments in the country. It served our cause well that our civil society delegation not only brought in specialized experience in our various fields of interest but also represented the diverse community of women living in Armenia.

On the last day, the Committee held a State briefing, where—armed with facts and figures from all the materials given to them— they raised difficult issues with the Armenian government delegation, which consisted of representatives from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education and Science, Social Affairs Department of the Government Staff, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the United Nations Office.

Once the briefing began, it became immediately apparent that the Committee had taken nearly all of our voiced concerns into account, as they questioned the government about persisting gender inequality and the widespread abuse of women’s rights in Armenia. It was indeed validating for us to hear our words being echoed through the Committee members at such an important platform. Below I summarize the issues that the Committee raised at the State briefing.

Preparing for the oral statement. (L to R) Viktoria Avakova, Democracy Today; Ani Jilozian, Women’s Support Center; Anahit Simonyan, Women’s Resource Center; Zara Batoyan, Disability Info, Anna Ishkhanyan, Democracy Today; Bella Murazi, Sinjar Yezidi National Union; Anna Hovhannisyan, Sexual Assault Crisis Center, Maria Abrahamyan, independent researcher.

Regarding the controversial Law on Equal Rights and Equal Opportunity, the Committee asked how the law had been useful in combating gender inequality given the State’s purposeful removal of the word “gender” in all legal documents and the State-supported anti-gender propaganda following its adoption. Unsurprisingly, the response from Deputy Minister of Justice Vigen Kocharyan that “people have the right to use different terms,” showcased the State’s lack of political will to curb the perpetuation of such harmful stereotypes. The Committee also pointed out that the law lacks implementation mechanisms and punitive measures, to which the Government responded with no intention for the law to be reviewed or amended.

The Committee expressed concern over discriminatory gender bias and stereotypes perpetuated in educational materials at schools and universities as well as in the media. They highlighted the importance of gender education to be transformational for the country, with respective governmental entities working to make sure that students are educated on the accurate concept of gender and gender equality. The Committee recommended that the State adopt temporary special measures to engage more women in taking up senior levels in academia, to which the State had no answer. It seemed they lacked an understanding of the meaning of such measures as defined by the CEDAW Convention. Moreover, the Committee recommended the State to utilize resources and mobilize efforts to develop evaluation and monitoring mechanisms for upcoming gender education policies and ensure ongoing refresher trainings for educators.

With regards to the current stand-alone draft law on anti-discrimination, the Committee wanted to know whether sexual orientation and gender identity would be recognized as a protected ground by the law and how the State planned to combat homophobia and hate crimes targeting LBTI women, to which Kocharyan responded that Armenian law enforcement bodies take appropriate action—a statement far from the truth. The Committee also asked about the State’s intention to develop a comprehensive national action plan for the implementation of the United Nations Security Council’s resolution 1325 to ensure the safety of women in conflict-affected regions as well as their involvement in peace negotiations, to which the State could also not adequately respond.

In response to questions regarding the woeful underrepresentation of women in politics, State representatives attempted to justify the issue by saying that awareness raising campaigns are continually carried out to raise women’s political participation and that the gender quota in parliament has been increased. Whereas the new electoral code sets to raise women’s political participation, concerns remain regarding its timetable and as to how it will be properly implemented given past experience. Furthermore, the State could not provide a meaningful answer to the issue of the persistent underrepresentation of marginalized groups of women, including women with disabilities, rural women, and ethnic minorities, in political and economic life.

The committee brought up a number of issues concerning the employment of women, namely their involvement in the labor marker, the gender pay gap, and sexual harassment in the workplace, and urged the government to adopt temporary special measures to combat these issues. The Committee also voiced concerns about the administrative fine demanded of sex workers and the lack of employment options and other factors that force women into prostitution.

With regards to marginalized women, the Committee raised concerns about the lack of national legislation, policies, and programs to include women with disabilities, ethnic and sexual minorities, and rural women. Although the Head of the Social Affairs Department Astghik Mirzakhanyan noted that they had worked with NGOs during the drafting of the upcoming five-year National Action Plan on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, in reality none of the recommendations proposed by NGOs in the field were included. A particularly telling moment came in response to the question posed on the lack of access of ethnic minorities to education and rampant early marriages. The State responded that they are not aware of any such cases, when in reality an estimated one quarter of Yezidi girls drop out of school due to early marriages and community pressure.

CEDAW working session in Geneva

Regarding domestic violence, the Committee raised concerns about the fact that the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (also known as the Istanbul Convention) is set to be signed after the adoption of a domestic violence law, thus leaving open the possibility that the law will not be in line with the convention. They spoke about the necessity for the draft law—set to be adopted by 2018—to be victim-centered and include civil and criminal remedies as well as provisions for marital rape. They also raised the critical issue of victim blaming and gender insensitivity that resonates throughout the entire criminal justice system. Voicing the concerns of civil society, the Committee urged the government to take measures to support NGO-run shelters and work to prevent and combat femicide. Though Kocharyan assured the committee that civil society was involved in the drafting process in a meaningful way, the government is currently in the process of pushing domestic violence legislation through using the same tired tactics.

A telling example of the State’s inability to use a women’s rights-centered approach to policy-making came from the Head of Maternity and Reproductive Health Protection Unit Gayane Avagyan, who assured the Committee that they were focused on reducing the high rate of abortion, despite the fact that the Committee’s concerns were regarding women’s access and availability to modern contraceptives, which had not seen any improvement in the last five years as per the Armenian Demographic and Health Surveys. Moreover, the Committee questioned the new provision to the abortion law that attempts to ban sex-selective abortions through mandatory counseling and a three-day waiting period. Failing to recognize the root causes of sex-selective abortion —namely deeply-entrenched patriarchal norms that lead society to value boys over girls, which is exacerbated by poor economic conditions—the new provision in effect limits women’s reproductive freedoms.

On Nov. 18, the Committee will release its concluding observations, an assessment of the implementation of the CEDAW treaty by the State, and will alert the Armenian government about the set of tasks they will need to implement in the coming two years. Civil society will closely monitor the outcome in an effort to keep the State accountable to its obligation and protect the rights of women in Armenia.

5 Comments on UN Committee Review Unmasks Serious Violations of Women’s Rights in Armenia

  1. “UN has determined”… what a joke. Another hit piece on Armenia. “Women’s Support Center” – and yet another “Open Society” Soros project run by gullible Armenians who got blinded by a “career” scam. Meanwhile they have no clue what their “career choice” is leading to and the ramifications for Armenia.

    Curious at some of you Americans moving to Armenia for “personal and not patriotic” reasons: why didn’t you ever feel the need to clean up your home country first, but instead are too eager to use the weaponized tools of that same country to apply it to Armenia… expecting a revolution through “social change”?

    At the expense of Armenian identity and culture of course, but hey, “who cares as long as we are getting paid and making our bosses proud”. And to this I say, thank God for Armenia’s security services and thank God for all those patriotic Armenians holding our last bastion of land with an iron grip and keeping hope alive for worldwide Armenian patriots.

    • Agree.

    • Hagop, I would encourage more people who have a passion for social justice to be engaged in the real issues Armenia faces. Would Armenia be a better place if all we did was pour money and effort into its security services? No, of course not. There are a number of issues that Armenia, like every country, faces. Maybe if we stopped to get to know each other and worked together, instead of attacking one another for not being “patriotic” enough, we would actually find common ground. No one in Armenia who works for a small NGO is doing it for the money. That comment alone makes it clear that you’re quite far removed from what’s going on on the ground. If the “ramifications” of lobbying to the UN is that they, in turn, make the government accountable for their lack of commitment to women, children, and all marginalized populations in the country, then I think that’s doing a lot more for the country than writing an ignorant comment. Good luck to you & all your endeavors. I hope you are doing good work that helps your community. I mean that sincerely.

  2. @Ani, I am all for social justice, provided it is constructive. I am just not for it when there are strings attached, where those strings lead to a dark, dirty corner of western politics. Sorry, I am not in the least bit impressed with most of these western NGOs. They may claim to be “non-governmental” but that does not mean they are non-political.

    “If the “ramifications” of lobbying to the UN is that they, in turn, make the government accountable for their lack of commitment to women, children, and all marginalized populations in the country…”

    Is this the same UN which only last week booted Russia from the Human Rights Council and replaced the spot with none other than… SAUDI ARABIA!? You know, that country which is probably the absolute worse in the world from the women’s rights perspective. This has to be the joke of the decade.

    Armenia might not be perfect perfect, and I would welcome social justice at any time, but provided it is not foreign funded from the likes of characters like Soros. I don’t welcome a western political agenda in the guise of “social justice”. Before I knew anything about Soros, and the neocon-western agenda, I also thought that the intent was to help, and that these peaceful revolutions were a good thing to make things better. Remember the old American adage: “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. This is no different.

    Holding the government accountable for Yezidi girls who quit school to get married is also questionable. Firstly, the government wants to stay sensitive to the Yezidi community so that they can practice their culture the way they want. After all that is exactly why we have a Yezidi community in the first place, not to mention that Yezidis have their own community leaders. (I can just imagine it… once the government actually brings in “western morals” to the Yezidi community, next we will see articles outlining how the government of Armenia is actually now ‘oppressing’ the minorities… yawn).

    And second, how do you know what these people go through from their day-to-day lives to be making conclusions about what the government needs to do, and worse, what they themselves need to do? Maybe for these Yezidi girls an executive position with AT&T must be waiting for them straight out of high school and they missed it? I’m always amazed about people going to Armenia from comfortable and wealthy countries and magically expecting everyone living there to conform to their own vision and lifestyle, as if all the same level of education, jobs, security and economy exist there.

    I’m not trying to knock you for doing your part in helping Armenia. If you can do something positive and make a difference, then good for you. But your approach is hostile and divisive. Just take a look at your headline, which I found to be offensive to start with. It’s something one would read straight out of an Azeri “news” site. For people trying to make positive changes to Armenia, the first thing that needs to be shown is sincerity. I am not saying you are insincere in your intent, but your approach perhaps needs revisiting.

  3. Personally I’m not pro-western, yet there is great number of victims of domestic violence in Armenia. The same men are victims of domestic violence when they were children. They have been beaten as children by their fathers, they have been silent witnesses of violence against their mothers and they could do nothing and some grew into violent adults. Beating, mistreating women is not a family value. The true family values are love, care and respect.

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