Armenians have faced significant challenges in the past 20 years, including the devastating earthquake of 1988, the independence of the republic in 1991, the closing of the Metzamor Nuclear Power Station for a while, and the ensuing war for liberation of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh). Moreover, a succession of corrupt and undemocratic governments, each (s)elected under questionable conditions, have engaged in the wholesale selling off of the meager assets and resources of the nation to foreign interests, and in concentrating the remaining resources in the hands of a few families; have made little effort to establish a precedence for the implementation of the rule of law and justice in a country where those concepts are historically not well understood or practiced; and have withered away the hard-earned currency of hope and unity resulting from the independence of the nation and the liberation of Artsakh.
These blows have had devastating effects on the fabric of society by causing the mass exodus of close to one million Armenians from their homeland and the temporary migration of a large number of men to find work in Russia and other countries to support their families. These migration patterns have left many women without support or assistance in household responsibilities and child care, with rural areas—where programs to assist women are not as plentiful and the pressure for men and women to adopt stereotypical roles is even greater than the cities—bearing the brunt of the problem.
As if this was not enough, these women, who truly are the rock upon which Armenian society is built upon, are further subjected to domestic violence, with Zaruhi Petrosyan being the latest victim to lose her life after being viciously beaten by her husband and mother-in-law and facing indifference from the authorities.
According to a study conducted by Sociometer, an independent sociological survey center, in Yerevan and in eight towns and eight villages, of the 1,200 participants, 75 percent said they are victims of domestic violence (WHO data places domestic violence in the United States at 22 percent), with children being witnesses in 25 percent of the cases. This study notwithstanding, experts agree that cases of violence against women in Armenia are widespread, but that traditional stereotypes do not allow women a proper course of action. “When we raise the question of violence against women in high places to pass a law, they say there is no such problem in Armenia, that it is artificially imported from foreign countries,” says the director of the Women’s Rights Center, Susanna Vardanyan. “We are even blamed for having sold ourselves to the foreigners and for making our traditionally strong families deteriorate.”
Mihran Galstyan, an ethno-sociologist from the Institute of Ethnography of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, agrees that claims of domestic violence are exaggerated. “Many organizations just extort grants from abroad. The foreign mediation into Armenian families is quite dangerous. If the woman is constantly told her husband has no right to reprimand on her, we will not have families,” says Galstyan .
With experts such as Galstyan and the mentality demonstrated by a large segment of men in Armenia (this is, admittedly, a generalization and not reflective of the entire population), these findings are not at all surprising. A very dangerous situation exists for the very women that we are to love and protect, for a variety of factors, including an overly macho mentality among men, reinforced by having grown up with the idea—and reality—that a woman must take a beating now and then to be a good wife and mother, the systemic insensitivity of the authorities to acknowledge that a problem even exists; the unwillingness of victims to go forward with their complaints (due to a real fear of community and family stigmatization, and the lack of any response should they proceed); and the deficiency of the Armenian legal system, where domestic violence is no different than any other type of assault.
On a sad anecdotal note, a friend told me about an Armenian lady who was married to a Diaspora Armenian. Apparently, the couple was having some difficulties, and the husband brought the subject up with his brother-in-law (wife’s brother), who in turn told him that the root of their marital problems lay with the husband, who did not give his wife a good beating from time to time to keep her in line. This was coming from the woman’s brother. Again, I understand that this is an n of 1, but it makes a point and adds to the many other n’s out there.
Another anecdotal note points to the resourcefulness of Armenians when confronted by a problem. Apparently, an Armenian from Abovyan, who was a successful businessman in Russia, hired many migrant workers from Armenia to help support their families at home. Upon hearing that most of his migrant workers were squandering their earnings in Russia on prostitutes and would return home with a variety of STD’s as souvenirs for their wives, he had the wives open bank accounts in Armenia, where he deposited the majority of their husbands’ salaries, leaving enough funds for the husbands to get by in Russia, but not enough for them to carry on with their previous dalliances.
The problem is that we cannot legislate our way out of the crippling mentality that breathes and nurtures domestic abuse. Tough laws (including the categorization of domestic violence as a separate form of assault) and, more importantly, the swift implementation of said laws would surely have an impact. The problem is, who is going to enforce the laws? The same wife-beating police officers? The changing of attitudes based on proper education and an understanding of the roots of the problem—and not the fear of punishment itself—will be the real agent for change.
On that note, we can and must take steps together to address this issue. Simply complaining about it will not make it go away. If there was a Zaruhi yesterday, who is to say that there will not be another one tomorrow? There are a number of organizations in Armenia that provide much-needed help on a shoestring budget. We can pull our resources together to help these organizations carry out their mission and help those women in need now. One could argue that there are so many problems, and that we are doing all we can at the moment to help with those issues. But if we, as Armenians, do not step in, then who else will?
If we can hold telethons to build much-needed roads and other infrastructure, why can’t we dedicate one of the telethons to help protect our mothers and sisters by bringing this issue out in the public. This way, we can let our women know that they are not alone and that they have nothing to feel ashamed of. Wouldn’t this be a reasonable cause to follow on the current “water is life” campaign? How about “a safe and unbruised mother is life“? We pride ourselves with our many poems dedicated to our mothers. Why don’t we back these beautiful poems with meaningful action? With the prevalence of social media outlets and the possibility of charitable donations via cell phones, we must be able to affect change.
We must come together to bring about a real change in Armenian society—in the perception and attitude of the men who engage in domestic violence, who then, as authorities, deny its existence or refuse to provide real support to the victims in need. We can do so by providing educational materials in the form of pamphlets; TV, radio, or magazine ads; lectures; special segments on programs; public embarrassments; or any other reasonable means that will get the message out.
We must bear in mind that this is not unique to Armenia alone, that this can affect all Armenians (like most of our issues). We would be fools to think domestic violence only occurs in Armenia, or that simply feeling sorry for women in Armenia will somehow change their plight. So, while we understand the issue and are incensed by it, we must take action to address it. We must open a dialogue with the experts in Armenia who work in this area; assess the situation together; address their immediate needs in conducting their work more effectively; raise the necessary funds and support mechanisms; and, most importantly, help each other understand the underlying causes and means to help our men be the men they ought to be. One does not need to be a brute to be a man.
I am ready to do my small part. I hope the readers are as well.
-“Fighting Tradition: Domestic violence is fabric in the family cloth,” by Gayane Abrahamyan, July 4, 2006, www.armenianow.com.
-“Stop Violence Against Women,” project by the Advocates for Human Rights, 2008.
-“Respecting Women: Domestic Violence in Armenia,” by Belinda Cooper and Elisabeth Duban, 2008, Armenian Forum, vol. 2, no. 3.