Armenia has continued to steadily claim its place in the democratic international arena since the Velvet Revolution of 2018. However, this is not without ongoing internal struggles that often revolve around culture, mentality, national identity—and most intimately, familial norms.
As Armenia adapts to European legal standards and requirements, considerations regarding national values come to the forefront. Many of these considerations and issues have to do with family.
Last week, Armenia’s National Assembly ratified the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse. In a 79-12 vote, Armenia finally joined the 45-member Council of Europe states that have already ratified and implemented it.
The convention—also known as the Lanzarote Convention—is the most contemporary and comprehensive international legal document that criminalizes sexual abuse against children. Nations that ratify it are expected to establish victim-support programs, provide information to children on the dangers of sexual exploitation in schools and encourage the public to report suspected child abuse. Most significantly, the Lanzarote Convention is the first international treaty that addresses child sexual abuse that takes place within the family.
The ratification, which had been long-overdue since the Convention was first signed in 2010, was met with resistance from opposition parties and conservative groups. The Prosperous Armenia Party, backed by the Armenian Apostolic church, voiced the strongest criticism, which was to be expected given the current makeup of the National Assembly.
Far more interesting and noteworthy are the online public discussions that have followed the vote. Armenians are now openly offering a close and uncontrived look into their personal sentiments and concerns around something so intimate. There is an obvious ongoing shift in the public sphere.
Family is widely considered the cornerstone of Armenian culture. It is the foundation of her national values. There has always been a strong stigma against criticizing the Armenian family. Topics of domestic violence and abuse have long been avoided in public discourse due to fear that these conversations—and awareness around these matters—will threaten the traditional values of the country. This is now changing.
In the last two years, conversations about sex, sexual education and sexual abuse have been slowly becoming more normalized in the public realm (particularly on social media). In 2019, journalist Lucy Kocharyan received and published approximately 200 letters from victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Many of these stories were childhood stories. This was an eye-opening moment that exemplified Armenia’s refusal to continue the tradition of silence and taboos.
As a result, today the Lanzarote Convention is being discussed openly by parents, teachers, lawyers, activists and psychologists who have been voicing their opinions online about the importance of the convention and their reservations. In other words, what we have is an ongoing public discussion about what to expect from the ratification and how to navigate it in an Armenian way.
This is not an exclusively Armenian dilemma. EU conventions that cover such sensitive social topics are often met with a level of skepticism in Eastern European states. Eastern Europe is where tradition and unwritten moral codes prevail, so the public is apt to respond with caution and deliberation. The public discourse can indicate the best paths for implementation.
In Armenia, this dialogue is an achievement in and of itself. It needs to be followed closely to inform and shape the implementation of the Lanzarote Convention. While there is little doubt that the Convention is a remarkable blueprint, the actual application of the Convention’s requirements should be tailored to Armenia’s cultural characteristics and realities. This will help ensure that Armenia stays true to the spirit of the 2018 Velvet Revolution. A liberated and informed public that is free to voice its opinions—and progress on its own terms—is the hallmark of a true democracy.