Special for the Armenian Weekly
Try if you can to put yourself in the position of a battered woman who awakens each morning praying that she can go through the day without another confrontation. You still have bruises from the violent episodes that seem to arise out of nowhere, without reason. The values instilled in you as a young girl fortify the expectation by your family and society and yourself that you should stay with your husband and be a good wife. You have no means to support yourself and with a small child to care for you decide, once again, to remain in an intolerable situation.
In Armenia, domestic violence is a serious problem that remains on the margins of national discourse. While opinions may vary, public consensus appears to be that domestic violence is either grossly exaggerated or that its revelation is an attack on the Armenian family, or an attempt to discredit the Armenian people. Numerous creditable studies, polls, interviews, and anecdotal accounts, by Armenian and international organizations, amply justify classifying domestic violence as a serious problem whose victims (women and children) suffer if not death, then a range of social, psychological, and medical problems. From any perspective, it is a situation that cannot be tolerated or denied away.
Fortunately, there are women and men in Armenia who have realized the extent and seriousness of this aberrant form of (usually) male behavior and the plight of its victims. The death in 2010 of 19-year-old Zaruhi Petrosyan, the mother of a two-year-old baby girl, brought to the public’s attention for the very first time the crime of domestic violence (her husband was found guilty of murder). Zaruhi became the first known victim. How many victims there were before her can only be surmised. Unfortunately, Zaruhi has not been the last victim. Her death was the catalyst that resulted in the formation of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women in Armenia (Coalition). Presently this Coalition has eight member organizations focusing not only on domestic violence, but issues such as sexual assault and human trafficking.
Annually, on Oct. 1 (the day Zaruhi’s body was discovered in 2010), the Coalition holds its National Day Against Domestic Violence in Armenia (National Day observance). This year marked the 4th annual National Day observance to inform and educate the Armenian public about domestic violence and to enlist them as well as the victims to speak out. To publicize this critical need for every Armenian to become involved by speaking out, the first of several planned public service announcements was entitled “Khoseer” (Speak). It was produced by the Coalition and the Armenia Media Group with the support of the United States Embassy and aired on television (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2XR182cUQA).
To witness or have knowledge of domestic violence and remain silent is unconscionable. Hopefully, the hapless victims, knowing that people are speaking out about this crime, will encourage them to seek help. Under any circumstance envisioned, it is not an easy decision for these women to make. They must be sure that when they leave, there will be a safe haven for them and their children. The public service announcements and the Oct. 1 National Day observance are important vehicles to enlist the public’s support to speak out and to bring domestic violence into the public discourse. It also conveys the message to these women that the opportunity does exist to obtain help in a safe and secure environment.
Progress can be cited. The recently formed Department for Family Matters by the Republic of Armenia’s police has, since 2009, indicated that reports of domestic violence have doubled. The head of police just recently (Oct. 9, 2014) issued guidelines for departments to take a proactive role to combat and prevent domestic violence. This awareness by the government is the direct result of civil society working diligently since 2010 to bring the issues of domestic violence, the rights of women, and the need to protect and provide support for victims into public discourse
As yet, there is no specific crime identified as “domestic violence,” and the reluctance of victims to come forward, and thus the number of incidences that are formally reported, fail to indicate its prevalence within society. When the victim files a complaint, it can be acted upon under a number of categories within Chapter 16 (Murder) of the Armenian Criminal Code. Guilty under one article may result in a shorter prison term as compared to a guilty verdict under another article. If the abused victim dies, Articles 104 or 105 or 109 or 110 could apply. If not death, then Article 118 (Battery) or 119 (Torture) or, depending on the extent of bodily harm inflicted, Articles 112 through 114 or 117 would be the cause of action. Since the penalties vary, the perpetrator would seek to be tried for the crime with the lesser stipulated penalty. As a result, the present criminal code inadvertently—or perhaps purposely—reinforces the mental pre-set of a society that is both skeptical and defensive as to the existence or prevalence of domestic violence in Armenia.
To pressure the government to include domestic violence as a specific crime in the Criminal Code, well over 1,000 cards were signed by the public in support of the Coalition’s initiative. Having domestic violence legislated as a specific crime will accelerate the process of having the police, the courts, and the public be responsive to its existence, encourage victims to seek help, and create an administrative mind-set to address the extensive rehabilitative needs of its victims.
During the National Day observance, the Coalition moved from the abstract—simply naming victims—to displaying poster-size facial photos that allowed the public present on site or those watching television to realize that these victims were flesh-and-blood Armenian women, like themselves, or no different than women they might know.
Historically, our culture has rightly lionized the role of our women in peace and in war. They are the bearer of our children and their nurturers. They are the family caregivers and homemakers. And where opportunity has not been denied them, they have made their mark in the economic, political, cultural, and, yes, military fields. Think of the fedayee of decades past or the women who most recently fought in the war to liberate Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh). Those women remembered during the National Day observance—and whose deaths were the result of domestic violence—were Zaruhi Petrosyan, age 19 (2010); Maro Guloyan, age 20 (2012); Diana Nahapetyan, age 35 (2012); Lusine Davtyan, age 33 (2013); and Araksya Martirosyan, age 35 (2014). Accompanying the five photos was a silhouette of a woman’s face with a question mark and the caption, “Who will be next.” It should have read, “Who will be next that we may know about.”
When in Armenia this August, my daughter introduced me to Maro Matosian, the director of the Women’s Support Center (WSC) in Yerevan. The WSC was established in 2010 and is one of eight organizations that comprise the Coalition. The WSC is the only dedicated shelter in Armenia for victims of domestic violence and their children. Its personnel are trained by U.S. advocates and psychologists and, through its partnership with Jersey Battered Women’s Services, implements internationally approved methodology in responding to the needs of victims. The WSC provides a full range of professional services to enable these victims of domestic violence and their children to restart their lives. This may include legal and psychological counseling, medical referrals, obtaining necessary documents and government benefits, enrolling children in school, and assistance in finding a job. During a typical year, the WSC receives more than 300 hotline calls and in 2013 provided shelter to 35 women along with 42 underage children. The WSC’s social workers, lawyer, and child psychiatrist handle hundreds of cases and consultations. This does not include an additional 140 survivors of domestic violence that the WSC continues to serve. The victims of domestic violence do not shed the effects of their traumatization simply by escaping their hellish existence. The WSC provides the absolutely necessary transition period for these women (and their children), where fear gives way to trust and self-doubt gives way to self-confidence.
Domestic violence does exist in Armenia. Domestic violence is a serious problem. The dedicated women and men confronting this horrible crime need help. KHOSEER!
Maro Matosian, the director of the Women’s Support Center (WSC), is currently in the United States. On Fri., Nov. 21, from 8-10:30 p.m., she will present an overview of the work of the WSC, followed by a question and answer period, at the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF), 441 Mystic Street, Arlington, Mass.