Zaruhi Petrosyan, Mariam Gevorgyan, Maro Gulyan. Many of us have heard their names and their stories. They have become the public faces of domestic violence in Armenia, Zaruhi and Maro with their untimely and tragic deaths, Mariam with her courage to speak up and demand justice.
But what about the many other women in Armenia who are victims of domestic violence? What options are available to them? What could have been Zaruhi’s future if she had sought help before her brutal murder? In my search for answers to these questions, I recently found myself visiting the safe house run by the Women’s Support Center in Armenia.
When the center’s executive director, Maro Matossian, came to pick me up, a part of me was secretly dreading the visit. I had prepared myself for a gloomy afternoon, meeting desperate, broken women in a destitute place.
After a slightly bumpy ride, we stopped in front of a gated house in a serene neighborhood. For safety reasons, I made a promise to not disclose the location of the house. As soon as I was on the other side of the shielding metal gates, I understood that this was a place very different from what I had imagined it to be.
The modern, three-story house is surrounded by a beautiful garden with several fruit trees and a khorovadz area. The residents maintain the garden, pick the fruits, make compotes and jams. It’s an ideal therapeutic activity, explains one of the social workers. No wonder. The silence around the house is interrupted only by the comforting, soothing sounds of nature.
The safe house can accommodate up to 10 women and their children, explains Maro as she gives me a tour of the house. In the kitchen, we meet one of the residents, a new comer with three baby girls. Her “sin” was failing to produce a son.
The safe house staff takes care of the grocery shopping, but the residents cook their meals in the communal kitchen. It is important that the residents participate in the affairs of the safe house as it helps them take back some level of control, explains Maro.
Upstairs we meet another woman, a 19-year old orphan who became pregnant out of wedlock. Her partner threatened to kill her and the baby if she decided to give birth. I can feel she’s reserved so I don’t ask questions.
Then I meet Gariné. She’s just back from picking strawberries in the fields nearby, a job the center helped secure for her. She seems eager to talk and I’m eager to listen.
“It was desperation that brought me here. I had no idea where I was coming or what to expect, but I didn’t have any other choice,” she says.
Now 30 years old, Gariné’s ordeal began a decade before, when she was a young bride of 20. Soon after their first child was born, the occasional slaps, as she describes them, developed into violent and frequent beatings at the hands of an alcoholic husband. Gariné separated from her husband, then returned to face even more violent abuse. Over the next decade, life would take her back and forth from her hometown in Yegheknatsor to Meghri, Karabagh, and Artashat. Her three children, mercilessly dragged along by her husband, fell seriously ill more than once.
Things took a dramatic turn one fateful night in Artashat in October of last year. After a fed-up Gariné appealed to the Artashat court and police, she found herself thrown out on the street by her husband. Gariné got on a bus to Yerevan and sought shelter at the Fund for Armenian Relief. She was then referred to the Women’s Support Center safe house.
At the safe house, Gariné and her kids were provided with food and clothes. They received extensive help with sorting out complicated paperwork, including the return of important documents left in Karabagh as collateral for a small loan. Schooling arrangements were made for the kids and Gariné took part in private and group counseling sessions.
“The staff here nurtured my soul. I used to think that life had passed me by and that the only thing I could do was focus on my kids. Now I have come to understand that there are so many colors in life, despite the torture I have seen during my married life. Now, I’m not only interested in the future of my kids but also in my own future,” says a grateful Gariné.
Empowering battered women is the most important focus of the social workers and counselors at the safe house. This is not just a place for women to shelter themselves from abuse. “We put in a lot of effort to empower these women so they take their lives back into their own hands. We provide them with the knowledge, resources, and advice to enable them to make decisions about their future. Once they set their goals, we support them in achieving these goals. We do not decide on their behalf,” Maro explains.
It is for this same reason that by contract, residents are required to stay here for three months. The center does not want them to exit one dependent relationship only to enter another one. Most women are able to stand on their own two feet by the end of this period, given the extensive support they receive with every aspect of their life, including work placements.
Even after they have left the safe house, however, the center continues to keep in touch with these women and provide them with assistance when required.
After her time at the safe house, a recovered Gariné returned to her parents’ house in Yegheknadzor in February 2013, where she’s trying to build a life for her family with the center’s support. “I reached the conclusion that I would not be able to support my family working as a single mother in Yerevan,” she says with firm conviction.
The center is working with the Yegheknadzor mayor and the authorities in Yerevan to provide Gariné with a place to live on the premises of a former kindergarten. Gariné is also receiving legal assisting from the center after making the firm decision to divorce her husband. In the meantime, she is temporarily back at the center, with the opportunity to work and put aside some money for the future.
Of course, everything comes with a price tag. Maintaining the safe house costs $50,000 each year, and it has been an uphill struggle. After years of supporting domestic violence projects, international donor organizations have shifted their priorities, says Maro. The lack of assistance from the Armenian government, which recently rejected a draft law on criminalizing domestic violence, only compounds the problem. It is diasporan support that is keeping the safe house open at the moment. The gap in this year’s budget was secured through a OneArmenia fundraising drive. Funding for next year remains to be seen.
My visit to the safe house comes to an end with hugs and a jar of mulberries hand-picked from the garden. Churning the events of that afternoon in my mind, I have a hard time believing Gariné has been the victim of physical and psychological abuse for an entire decade. Confident, friendly, jubilant, she is now entirely focused on her future. It appears to me this safe house has been a house of hope and rebirth for Gariné. As our taxi drives off, I make a wish for the other two women I met—that they make the same brave journey soon.