YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—After years of foot-dragging and indecision, the Armenian authorities plan to enact a law aimed at combating domestic violence and helping its predominantly female victims.
Violence against women has for decades been a taboo subject in the socially conservative and male-dominated Armenian society. It has been receiving growing publicity in recent years, thanks to the activities of women’s rights groups backed by international human rights watchdogs.
According to the Yerevan-based Women’s Resource Center, more than 50 Armenian women have been beaten to death or otherwise killed by their husbands or other relatives in the last five years. “This trend shows no signs of decline,” said a representative Anahit Simonian. “I think this is a very serious number and this process [of a enacting a law] must not drag on further.”
Armenian Justice Minister Davit Harutyunyan expressed serious concern over these figures on Thursday. “Violence is not the foundation of a real and strong Armenian family,” he told a news conference.
Harutyunyan said the Armenian government intends to tackle the problem with a law drafted by the Justice Ministry last year. Both he and another senior ministry official, Gohar Hako Hakobyan, expressed hope that the bill will be debated and passed by Parliament soon.
If passed, the bill will introduce criminal and administrative liability for specific cases defined as domestic violence. It would also obligate the state to protect victims by providing them with special shelters or banning their violent spouses from approaching them and their children.
Women’s rights groups say the Armenian police routinely tell assaulted and injured women to withdraw their crime reports on the grounds that they lack legal levers to prosecute attackers. Hakobyan stressed that under the draft law the police will have to launch a criminal investigation even in case of such a withdrawal.
A 43-year-old woman in Yerevan interviewed by RFE/RL’s Armenian service claimed to have suffered physical, sexual, and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband for 20 years. “I was pregnant when he once kicked me and fell from my bed,” she said, adding that she now suffers from chronic health problems.
The woman, who did not want to be identified for fear of further violence, said she has not divorced her husband because she cannot support their three children on her own and does not want to upset her parents.“I was probably not very strong,” she added. “But the main factor was the honor of my parents.”
The Justice Ministry posted the proposed law against domestic violence on its website over two weeks ago to receive feedback from civic groups and citizens. The latter were encouraged to vote in an online poll for or against its passage. Some 560 website visitors have backed the bill, while 505 others have opposed it since then.
The almost even split vote highlights many Armenians’ enduring conservative views on the subject that are backed by some nationalist groups and pro-government politicians. They say any government interference in family affairs would run counter to Armenian traditions and undermine the fabric of society.
This attitude explains why similar legislation previously put forward by another government ministry and women’s NGOs did not even reach the Parliament floor.
The nongovernmental Coalition Against Violence has twice submitted a relevant measure to lawmakers since 2009. Its coordinator, Zaruhi Hovannisyan, voiced support for the Justice Ministry bill on Friday. But, she cautioned, it is even more important to change attitudes of vulnerable women.
“A person must not tolerate violence against them,” said Hovannisian. “They must not get used to it.”
Archbishop Ajapahyan Backs Fight against Domestic Violence
A high-ranking clergyman of the Armenian Apostolic Church voiced support for government efforts to combat domestic violence as those efforts were angrily denounced by socially conservative groups on Oct. 9.
The Gyumri-based Archbishop Mikael Ajapahyan spoke during a heated public discussion in Yerevan regarding the law drafted by the Ministry of Justice.
The ministry invited nongovernmental organizations supporting and opposing tougher government action against domestic violence to publicly present their arguments. The meeting descended into chaos as the two sides bitterly argued over the wisdom of the proposed legislation.
Representatives of several mostly obscure groups vehemently objecting to the government initiative stood by their claims that the West and the European Union in particular are forcing Armenia to enact the bill in order to weaken Armenian families. One of them, Hayk Nahapetyan, questioned statistics showing that more than 50 Armenian women have been beaten to death or killed otherwise by their husbands or other relatives in the last five years. The scale of the problem is grossly exaggerated by pro-Western civic groups, he claimed.
Ajapahian disagreed. “Even if there is some foreign intervention or a desire to please some foreign forces… why should we see a nonexistent conspiracy? I personally don’t see any conspiracy,” he said.
“If I have a normal family, if I am a loving father, a loving husband or a loving son, if I love and am loved, which article of this law on prevention of domestic violence could harm me?” the archbishop went on. “So do not create imaginary monsters, do not fight against imaginary monsters, and be tolerant toward each other.”
Ajapahyan, who leads a church diocese encompassing Armenia’s northwestern Shirak province, at the same time urged the Ministry of Justice to “take into account and allay” concerns expressed by critics.
Justice Minister Davit Harutyunyan, also present at the discussion, was at pains to disprove opponents’ claim that the bill paves the way for the forcible separation of children from allegedly violent parents. “You haven’t even read the law,” he told a woman who continued to claim the opposite.
Unable to convince their opponents, a visibly irritated Harutyunyan and some civic activists campaigning domestic violence walked out of the meeting hall moments later. The Minister made clear that he remains determined to send the bill, strongly backed by women’s rights groups, to the Armenian Parliament for approval.