Removing the shackles of shame and silence for victims of domestic violence and human rights abuse
By Carolina Gazal with Raffi Joe Wartanian
When twenty-year-old Zaruhi Petrosyan from Masis was beaten to death by her husband and mother-in-law in 2011, a public outcry was felt throughout Yerevan as women’s rights activists took to the streets to raise awareness on the taboo discussion of domestic violence in Armenia. In one of the most highly publicized and controversial domestic violence cases to date, Petrosyan’s husband testified that his wife fell and died even though her knees, fingers, and skull were shattered prior to his arrest. Her family members told several Armenian news outlets that she would come home bruised and wounded, with no response or action from Armenian authorities. They believed her fingers were intentionally broken so she couldn’t call her family for help. Petrosyan’s husband received a ten-year sentence after women’s rights organizations galvanized in court and pressured officials to dole out a longer sentence than the initial six years he was given. Even though Petrosyan’s case brought domestic violence to public discourse, her death was still met with currents of denial, skirmishes in court, and opposition groups claiming domestic violence does not exist in Armenia. Contesters of domestic violence legislation are worried about the effect it could have on the traditional nuclear family, as authorities would be able to take custody of children. However, Petrosyan’s case was only the tip of the iceberg as more than fifty women have been killed in Armenia by their significant others between the years of 2010 to 2017. According to the Turpanjian Center for Policy Analysis, 66% of women have experienced psychological abuse in their households, and those surveyed believed this was even worse than the physical abuse they suffered. As of 2018, investigated cases of domestic violence have climbed to 13.3%, rising from 458 to 519 reported cases in only a year, according to the Investigative Committee of RA.
Safety in Numbers
After Petrosyan’s death, concerned activists including Maro Matossian, the director of the Women’s Support Center, formed the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, a conglomerate of women’s rights, support, and resource centers. Together with other organizations including the Women’s Resource Center, PINK Armenia, the Sexual Assault Crisis Center, and Agate Rights Defense Center, they have made it their mission to raise awareness on the issue of domestic violence and to create public programs to change Armenia’s belief that violence against women does not exist. As a result of their collective activism, October 1st is recognized as “Domestic Violence Remembrance Day”—the day Petrosyan was murdered. In addition to the efforts of the Coalition, there is still sociological research that needs to be done on gender-based violence in Armenia. Until a detailed domestic violence database is created, statistics are limited to the incomplete data the Coalition has gathered. “In Armenia, right now we are where the United States was about 40 years ago, with the difference that we do not have a very strong grassroots support,” said Matossian. Nevertheless, the work of feminists and other activists in Armenia are transforming the lives of families escaping domestic violence. Matossian’s NGO has been providing shelter and resources for women and children seeking refuge from abusive households. With a hidden location, the Women’s Support Center is the light at the end of the tunnel for women seeking shelter and a supportive circle. The Center has also created a national hotline run by trained social workers that provides immediate assistance to women who have nowhere else to turn. Social workers also provide women with self-esteem counseling, education on healthy relationships, and early warning signs of abuse in their mission “to dissipate years and decades of control, fear, even brainwashing of these victims…a long process faced with many lapses, bumps, and bruises.”
More Talk Leads to More Action
Since the redevelopment of Armenia’s domestic violence laws in October, gender-based violence has been a pressing issue in Armenia, paving the way for discussion and legislative progress. “In general, it takes a lot of time to change attitudes, to change behavior, to change legislature, to change agencies and approaches,” said Matossian. Even with existing police reports, domestic violence cases have been wrought with unreliable information from abusers, family members, and most importantly, Armenian authorities who often pressure women to drop charges and reconcile with their partners. Deep-seated shame, guilt, and gossip culture within households and communities stall development as an overwhelming 88% of women surveyed at the Turpanjian Center believed that domestic violence was best solved within the family. In the early weeks of October 2019, the Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs proposed a bill that would establish a centralized database of domestic violence cases, the first of its kind to exist in Armenia. The proposed database would also document the various forms of gender-based violence in different regions of Armenia, furthering research for women’s rights and public health. “It’s hard to do it all at once, but we do not have any other choice,” said Matossian. “We have to enlist the ministries, the police, the inspectors, and even the forensics. All of these areas need to have a willingness to improve and change accordingly.”
Violence as Entertainment
Scenes of family violence and violence against women are rampant across Armenian media, a result of Armenia’s lack of regulation of discriminatory practices in print media, television, and social networks. Armenian soap operas are the most salient example of the enculturation of gender-based discrimination, as producers consistently depict female characters as docile, beaten, and easily manipulated. These shows often reflect an overdramatized reflection of viewer’s reality, and frequent exposure to problematic behavior can be detrimental to domestic violence progress. One of Armenia’s top ten most popular television shows, “The Carousel of Life” consistently features violence and discrimination against women and children. “Eighty percent of the Armenian population watches soap operas,” according to Matossian. “The [shows] have agendas, they emphasize on the superiority of men and the inferiority and submissiveness of women.” When a majority of Armenia’s rural and urban population watches shows together, they can inherit the violent interpersonal relations adamant in these dramatic depictions. At the tail end of the summer, the Armenian Television and Radio Commit-tee adopted a stricter criterion for screening Armenian media after a local television station depicted especially heinous scenes of domestic violence. Matossian observed, “Once violence is accepted as normal, the chances of changing societal norms are slim unless producers and television corporations change the status quo. So, in society like that, aggressiveness is the norm.”
Forces of Resistance
As national conversations ensue, it seems there is resistance to change. The focus of this opposition is the ratification of the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe, which, at its core, called on European countries to prevent all forms of violence against women and urged Armenia to pass a domestic violence law as a condition for financial support. It would implement a zero-tolerance policy, training police and justice system professionals to support and respond to high-risk situations. The convention would also establish support for households experiencing domestic violence by removing perpetrators from the premises and ensuring victims can claim compensation from offenders. Though the convention was signed by Armenia last January, ratification is pending due to concerns over state compensation for those who have been seriously injured, ex parte and ex officio proceedings, the statute of limitation for initiating any legal proceedings and residence status. The biggest concern, however, is the convention’s definition of gender, which states it as “the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Armenian officials are apprehensive about this non-binary definition. “The convention introduces the concept of ‘social gender’ which is outside of the scope of human rights doctrine as a set of natural rights since in nature we only have two sexes: male and female. It’s only logical to further promote and protect human rights in Armenia by reforming the existing legislation…leaving the sexual life (and orientation) of the people outside of the scope of state’s intervention in private life,” said Larisa Alaverdyan, first ombudsperson of the Republic of Armenia and member of the Public Council. Recognizing gender in non-binary terms would be a big leap for Armenian society as disapproval still persists from those who believe the convention is unconstitutional and a threat to traditional Armenian values, in addition to the fear that it would recognize same-sex marriage.
Another Hot Button Issue
As victims and advocates against domestic violence are taking a more vocal stand in favor of legislative protections, recent events over the Istanbul Convention have also put the spotlight on LGBTQ rights in general.
Even in the wake of the peaceful, non-violent Velvet Revolution of 2018, longstanding, deep-seated views on sexual orientation and gender identity have kept the LGBTQ movement largely underground. One exception is PINK Armenia, a non-profit founded over 10 years ago by Mamikon Hovsepyan. Dedicated to supporting community members and their families, it has steadily gained support and exposure outside Armenia, particularly in more mature democracies like Western Europe, the United States and Canada—countries that allow same-sex marriage and protections against hate speech and hate crimes.
Also, in 2008, a group of artists and intellectuals formed an online resource called Queering Yerevan Collective designed to educate the community on the multifaceted issues related to gender and orientation. Along those same lines is Rainbow Armenia, a group that helps promote self-expression by creating safe spaces for active and passive relaxation exercises. This may include art therapy, image theater and non-violent communication methods that help participants engage and share perspectives about issues central to the community.
Moments of Truth
No doubt, the most pressing issue for members of the LGBTQ community in Armenia is the very idea of “coming out” in the first place—especially to close family members. It marks a dramatic transition for individuals and the people who love them, particularly parents seeking answers to questions like: “Can I still love my child? Should I tell other family members, friends and coworkers? And what exactly is the definition of lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, queer, in the first place?” Members of the movement have also experienced these challenging questions in their own lives, and have responded to family members with resources to help facilitate dialogue as the first step to understanding and healing.
Notably, PINK Armenia has continued its leading role through counseling and support to struggling parents. Through education, communication strategies, and safe spaces, they have helped families bridge the divide.
In one exercise, the parent is asked to put her or his thoughts on paper, expressing first reactions, fears, anxieties, regrets or other emotions that are bound to surface in the process of coming to terms with their child’s secret.
One mother, who learned through media coverage that her son was at the scene of a homophobic hate crime and had sustained injuries, describes her feelings in a letter to her son. “I couldn’t wait anymore, I wanted to know the truth. But I decided to give you time. I left you for a few hours to think. And in the evening I came to you. I already knew what we would talk about. But for me at that moment your face was more important, which was still bleeding, and you had many other injuries, and a soul that was hurt too.”
And like many parents who share their stories, she describes the many hints and clues that consciously or subliminally she chose to ignore. “I saw you adapting western ideas for your goals and dreams, because you knew that it is safer for you. I didn’t understand it. I did not ask myself why a student who hated German became very interested and persistent in learning that language. In fact, you were doing it for your own safety. And I still didn’t understand anything.” She concludes her letter with a revelation: “You have already taught me, my child, that there are different people in the world.”
While the letters do not have to be shared, such exercises are found to help process feelings on a sensitive and intimate subject between parent and child.
With advocacy, trainings, capacity building, and more, PINK’s efforts have created a haven for those targeted as fair game, while still falling short of the ultimate goal: equal rights and protections under the rule of law.
In September 2019, after an unexpected public address before Armenia’s National Assembly by 28-year old Lilit Martirosyan, a member of the LGBTQ community, the ensuing outcry in the form of death threats and hate speech caught the attention of the United Nations. Expressing its “concern about the recent rise in hate speech and threats of violence against human rights and LGBTQ activists in Armenia,” it went on to state that, “Neither threats of violence nor any form of discrimination against any group or individual can be tolerated.”
The European Union also weighed in over comments made against minorities and defenders of human rights in Armenia, saying that hate speech was the latest in this worrying trend that amounts to “discrimination prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms to which Armenia is party and which is reflected in the Constitution of Armenia.”
The EU called upon “all in Armenia who promote and believe in the universality of human rights” to condemn hate speech, urging law enforcement agencies to take “urgent steps” to guarantee the physical safety of Armenian citizens and to investigate hate crime allegations. Such an expansion of basic human rights in Armenia will require cooperation from the highest levels of government.
An Emphasis on Documentation
A key strategy for fending off the clear and present dangers wrought by hate speech and violence without consequence is documenting each case of physical, verbal and psychological assault and abuse. For example, a 2019 report by PINK Armenia details the numerous hate speech incidents by government officials between 2004 and 2018. It shows how, in some cases, public figures openly engaged in hate speech with impunity. In another instance, an intruder found his way into a social gathering of LGBTQ community members, which resulted in physical aggression and injuries to the guests. The news of the incident spread across local and international media featuring images of victims with bruised and swollen faces. Despite the attention received in the press, there were no charges made against the perpetrators by local law enforcement.
From Hovsepyan’s perspective, “Those who prey on members of our community, publicly harassing, shaming, ridiculing, condemning us in addition to assaulting us, should be subject to legal consequences. There is no place for violence in a post-peaceful revolution Armenia.”
Tools for Tolerance
Countless reports generated by the movement provide a roadmap for securing basic human rights in Armenia in the next decade. Organizations like PINK Armenia, Right Side NGO, Human Rights House, and others have called for expanding laws that define and discipline hate speech and discrimination directed towards the LGBTQ community. Such recommendations include textbooks illustrating a wider spectrum of binary and non-binary representations of gender and sexuality, healthcare professionals receiving training to treat concerns specific to this minority group, and the media to help ease stigma.
Combined, these efforts can work toward transforming Armenia into a more tolerant republic for all its citizens, regardless of sexual orientation. And with its October 2019 election to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Armenia will have a new platform on the international stage to promote, practice, and cultivate human rights abroad and at home.
LGBTQ reporting by Raffi Joe Wartanian