A number of years ago, an acquaintance of mine recounted how her sister’s husband had brutally beat her one night and turned her out of the house. She said it so matter-of-factly that I was taken aback. It was not the first time that her sister had been abused at the hands of her husband. At the time, I thought it was an exceptional case of violence and cruelty. That was the beginning of a 16-year journey that led me to understand that the exceptional is not always exceptional.
Violence against any human being is abhorrent, violence against an intimate partner is unimaginable. How could the one person with whom you’ve shared a life, who knows the secret contours of your body, who holds you in his arms, who should know the depth of your sorrows and the essence of your soul then turn around and crush your body and spirit with brute force? It is a phenomena that has destroyed countless women, many of whom have had to bear their victimization in sinister silence because society and traditions dictated and demanded that silence.
Armenia was and still is one of the few countries on the planet that does not have a law criminalizing domestic violence. The absence of a proper legal framework to protect victims of gender-based violence have left many women vulnerable and at the mercy of their abuser, the implications of which on the so-called traditional Armenian family are devastating. Existing legislation to deal with such cases and even prosecute the perpetrators are clearly not sufficient.
Even more alarming is the cultural acceptance of violence against women. Often, the belief that women should tolerate violence at the hands of their partners is necessary to keep their families together and to avoid bringing shame to their family’s name.
Tomorrow, Armenia’s parliament is set to discuss a contentious draft law on domestic violence. The bill has been in the works for a number of years and although not perfect, it was an acceptable start.
The bill was put to the test during public hearings in Yerevan when conservative groups lambasted the government and women’s organizations, who had been fighting for years to enact a law criminalizing domestic violence, for trying to destroy the family and take children away from their parents.
The ruling Republican Party (RPA) was not far behind with its criticism of the bill declaring that it contradicted traditional Armenian values. Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesperson for the RPA demanded that the Ministry of Justice revise provisions contained within the bill.
After severe pressure by the RPA and these groups, which was fueled by a concerted misinformation campaign on social networks, the bill was amended by the government at the eleventh hour. It is now a significantly watered down version of the original. The title of the bill was changed from “Prevention of domestic violence and protection of victims of domestic violence” to “Preventing violence in the family, protecting the victims of violence in the family and restoring the harmony in the family.”
The years of work and recommendations set forth by women’s organizations that have been working on the ground with battered women were basically thrown out the window.
The amendments to the bill include the removal of legal mechanisms aimed at protecting victims of violence and the narrowing down of the definition of domestic violence. For example, if the perpetrator does not live in the same house as the victim, then it is not considered domestic violence.
According to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, the draft law underwent conceptual changes, “shifting from the protection of an individual into ‘family harmony,’ which not only lacks a legal definition, but also contradicts local and international legal norms.”
It’s disconcerting how a nation that purportedly reveres mothers and stresses the integral role, importance and value of the traditional Armenian family, was divided on the necessity of such a law.
Lara Aharonian of the Women’s Resource Center highlighted some of the problematic areas with the amended bill, namely, Article 2, which enshrines the protection and maintenance of the traditional values of the Armenian family. Aharonian said that this is a serious concern since “women battered by their husbands are pushed to keep silent or not report in the name of family and traditions.” Additionally, this provision contradicts international standards on the rights of women because these values included in the amended bill can “hamper the full realization of the rights and freedoms of women in Armenia.”
The bill also foresees a mediation mechanism, which Aharonian says can place more pressure on women who have been abused to reconcile with their abusers. “Mediation works when both sides have an equal position and status in society,” she noted.
Ensuring the eradication of harmful gender norms, practices and traditions that deter the realization of women’s rights have been communicated to Armenia’s government by several international human rights bodies, including the UN CEDAW Committee.
According to the Asian Development Bank’s July 2015 Armenia Gender Assessment report, gender-based violence, especially domestic violence, was one of the most critical problems faced by women in Armenia. Depending on how broad the definition of domestic violence is, surveys by the government and women’s organizations confirmed that domestic violence was widespread, affecting between 25 to 66 percent of women. This year alone, 15 women in Armenia have been killed by their partners.
In whatever shape or form this bill is adopted, there is still tremendous effort that needs to be employed to change the existing cultural norms that often normalize violence within the home. We have to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in and what is the value of a woman’s life.