“I was 5-6 years old when a new tenant from a village moved into the small house in our courtyard. He had a wife and children. His middle son usually came to stay with him,” explains 20-year-old Naira [not her real name]. “After living there for three years, his son (he was probably 23 at the time) started touching me. There were even times when he would press his body against me, so that he could satisfy his carnal passion. This went on for two years…”
Naira thinks she was targeted because she simply happened to be there, because she was young and naive. ”Also, every time I needed to get to our cellar, I had to pass through several confined spaces by their house,” she recalls. Nairia’s life was changed forever. “I fell into depression from the fear that he would touch me,” she says. “Until I was 15 years old, I would never leave the house except to go to school. Even when he was in the courtyard, I was scared to go out.”
“Whenever he touched me, I was scared that one of the adults would see it and they would blame me. But I had no power,” she says. Naira now believes that her only saving grace would have been to tell her parents but she has remained silent to this day.
“There should be a warm and close connection between a mother and her daughter. And a mother has to be attentive to her daughter’s behavior,” says Naria. “A 6 or 7 year old has to know what to do in these cases so they don’t become a victim.”
Not All Sexual Acts Are Criminalized
According to data provided by Armenia’s Investigative Committee (IC), of the 200 criminal cases reported to the Committee in 2016, 88 were sexual crimes. In 2017, 99 out of 265 criminal cases were sexual in nature. In 2018, 79 out of 317 criminal cases, and in 2019, 91 out of 360 criminal cases were sexual crimes.
Hence, 30% of all criminal cases are sexual crimes. It should be noted that these crimes are hidden in nature and not all cases are resolved. It’s also important that several acts are not considered a crime in Armenian legislation. Those that are (Articles 138-142 of the Criminal Code), though, entail rather strict punishment: up to 15 years imprisonment.
On May 11, 2020, the National Assembly ratified the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, also known as the Lanzarote Convention. On March 31, the Constitutional Court had approved the Convention, which was signed by Armenia back in 2010, considering it to be in compliance with Armenia’s Constitution. After ratifying the Convention, several legislative amendments are to be implemented.
In June 2017, a 15-year-old girl was sent pornographic pictures and was engaged in “sex chats” by a Facebook user under the name “Unknown Artist.” Defendant A.N. pleaded guilty in court and petitioned an expedited trial. On March 15, 2018, Yerevan’s Court of General Jurisdiction, presided over by Judge Arsen Nikoghosyan, found A.N. guilty for committing indecent acts and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Children and Technology
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when classes started being conducted online, younger children started using the Internet more often and were systematically more tuned in to their screens. “There is no study to show what issues children faced during this time, whether or not there were any dangers,” says lawyer Meri Khachatryan, who is a legal consultant at the A.D. Sakharov Armenian Human Rights Protection Center NGO. “In terms of using technology, children are not protected.”
Meanwhile, sexual harassment against children online has become more common. Lawyer Davit Tumasyan brings examples of online sexual grooming which is not considered a crime under current Armenian legislation. “Indecent acts are punishable by law only when a physical sexual act is committed against a child or when information is provided,” explains Tumasyan. “Indecent acts can be seen as the preparatory part of that. For example, sending children letters which don’t contain sexual material, however, are clearly amorous, or touching children sexually because, in the case of indecent acts [according to the law], it is mandatory that sexual organs be involved in the touching.”
The Lanzarote Convention also entails criminally prosecuting those who use sexual services from people under the age of 18. Tumasyan notes that, according to Armenian legislation, the age of consent to any form of sexual activity is 16. If the 16-year-old provides sexual services, the “customer” will be punished if the child is forced to perform that service by being sexually exploited. The Convention demands that these acts be considered punishable, regardless of whether it was forced upon them, simply by the fact that the person is under the age of 18.
Excerpt from court hearing: “On October 14, 2011, T. went to Gyumri to visit relatives… at their home. Only T’s underage [female] cousin (14 years old) was home. He tried to kiss her; however, the latter did not let him and pushed him. T., against her will, physically violated her and threw her to the ground, after which he pulled her and lay her down on the sofa. The latter resisted, yelled and screamed for help. The neighbors came to the house after hearing her. T. ran away.
T. was sentenced to four years in prison.
Chemical Sterilization Back on the Agenda
The Lanzarote Convention foresees several state assistance programs for child victims and their families (aimed at physical wellness and psycho-social recovery). It also aims to prevent crimes or their repetition.
“For example, there can be psychological assistance to a sex offender or other types of work so the that person won’t return to society after serving their sentence and continue their ‘activities’ in freedom,” explains Tumasyan. He says that, when a legislative amendment package for stricter punishment for sex offenders was being discussed in 2011, the issue of forced chemical sterilization was also brought up. However, that measure was not approved as the Lanzarote Convention was not yet ratified. Now that the Convention has been ratified, this issue might be put on the agenda yet again. “There will now be grounds that a psychologist has to work with the offender. If there is need, he will undergo anti-hormone therapy [chemical castration]. Everything will be done to ensure a safe environment for children,” says Tumasyan.
It’s important that the state maintains a database of the identities and DNA of those found guilty of sexual crimes against children. Based on this database, these offenders will not be allowed to work anywhere that involves communication with children.
“When someone is being hired for a job, there should be a check to make sure that person has not committed a crime or been prosecuted for harming children,” says Eduard Israelyan, who has been working for the protection of children’s rights for almost 18 years. “Our legislation does not demand this. And now that we’ve ratified [the Convention], I believe they will make that change.”
Data on offenders would not only be accessible in Armenia but would also be shared with the other 46 countries that have ratified the Convention.
Excerpt from court hearing: “In May 2010, G. met 15-year-old A., who lived in his neighborhood, through the social media site Odnoklassniki. They started talking on the phone. G. met with her several times, confessed he loved her and promised to marry her. He even invited her to the hotel he was staying at for coffee. On the night of May 25, 2010, G. invited A. over to his hotel room and offered her different alcoholic drinks. However, when the latter declined, he started telling her that he loved her and unexpectedly attacked her and started kissing her. Afterward, when the minor tried to resist, G. pushed her on the bed and raped her.
In the following days, he demanded A. give him jewelry belonging to her family members, otherwise he threatened to tell everyone she knew about their meetings and that they had had sexual relations. A. secretly gave G. 1.7 million AMD worth of jewelry because of the extortion.
G. was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Preventing a Child’s Revictimization
Deputy Director of the Ministry of Justice’s Center for the Implementation of Legal Education and Rehabilitation Programs Gayane Hovakimyan told EVN Report that a study conducted by the Center in 2016 showed that a child victim of sexual abuse falls victim again later on.
“It became clear that a child, while being a victim, falls prey to negative social influences. Many parents start to blame the child. People start saying, ‘Oh no, you were raped…’” explains Hovakimyan. “Often parents try to avoid going to court and try to solve the issue away from public scrutiny. If a young girl becomes pregnant, that information will often become known by the community and that girl’s life is disrupted.”
The Convention requires its signatories to protect a child’s private life, keep their identity a secret and not allow any information to be publicized which would lead to their identity being revealed.
Children who have been abused are revictimized by the judicial process, when they have to retell their story to the police, the investigator, an expert and the court. According to Eduard Israelyan, the international best practice is for a child to testify only once and have that recording used later in the process.
The Convention stipulates that interviews with a child be minimized and take place when absolutely necessary.
Excerpt from court hearing: “In May 2009, A. went to his aunt’s house to look after his cousins [girls] who had been left alone. That same night, around 1 o’clock in the morning, under the influence of alcohol, A. laid down beside M., who was sleeping. A. was clearly aware that M. was a minor. He took advantage of her helplessness and individual-psychological characteristics, and had sexual relations with her.
A. was sentenced to 4.5 years imprisonment.
Concerns: Children’s Education
Critics find Article 6 of the Convention, “Education for children” concerning. “Each Party shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that children, during primary and secondary education, receive information on the risks of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, as well as on the means to protect themselves, adapted to their evolving capacity. This information, provided in collaboration with parents, where appropriate, shall be given within a more general context of information on sexuality and shall pay special attention to situations of risk, especially those involving the use of new information and communication technologies.”
Director of the Chamber of Advocates Ara Zohrabyan said that the Convention, in general, is a positive tool with the exception of Article 6. On May 21, a petition to the Prime Minister initiated by Zohrabyan was presented, which stated that talking directly about sexual relations with children under the age of 12 (before puberty) can have a negative effect. Primary education includes children between the ages of six and ten.
According to Zohrabyan, Point 62 of the Convention’s Explanatory Report is also concerning as it states that risks of sexual exploitation and abuse should be given within the general context of sex education. “This means that sex education is mandatory. Meanwhile our officials deny this, stating that there will be no separate subject or education program on sex education,” says Zohrabyan. “This leads us to naturally ask: How is Article 6 going to be carried out?” According to Zohrabyan, officials won’t directly say if there’s going to be sex education in primary schools.
The petition references standards for sex education in international documents, which according to Zohrabyan will provide information on sexual relations for children in unaccpetable detail between the ages of six and ten. Zohrabyan raises concern that these standards will be forced on Armenia.
“I don’t have such concerns at all,” says Eduard Israelyan and adds that Armenia is not obligated to use or implement another country’s or organization’s standards. Also, all educational materials are developed by the state in Armenia.
“I’m a member of the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for the Rights of the Child and I know how the Council of Europe works,” explains Israelyan. “First, all documents of the Council of Europe are developed by country representatives and then those documents are transferred to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. They are then voted on by member country ministers and only approved through unanimous consensus. This means that if a country does not agree with some certain wording, then the document is not approved and can be discussed and developed for months and even years. Based on this, we can say with certainty that at least any document of the Council of Europe cannot contain controversial provisions because an official authorized by our country has voted on it.”
Concerns by lawyer Meri Khachatryan and other experts are connected to how Article 6 will be applied. “The biggest issue is how sex education will be provided and its content,” says Khachatryan. “Armenia doubtlessly has to ensure that serious and reliable experts work on the subject.”
“The Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport has a lot of work to do in the implementation of this article,” says lawyer Davit Tumasyan. “It has to be very careful in that process.”
The Education Ministry on Concerns Raised
“I’m officially stating that the Convention does not obligate us to accept any guidelines and we’re not ready to accept any guidelines no matter which institute has approved of them,” Zhanna Andreasyan, Deputy Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport said. “We have a national educational system, we have our national standards and from now on we’re going to lead through the method and guidelines that will be developed by our national educational system.”
Andreasyan notes that a draft government decision will be presented soon for public discussion about state standards for general education. According to her, work on changing the content of general education started a year ago. “Even before the ratification, we tried to indicate all the issues pertaining to insurance, the overall safety of children and improving media literacy.”
Andreasyan assures that the bill will be discussed widely with the public; the position of all interested sides will be taken into consideration. “If parents and teachers propose even better wording and approaches, then we will introduce them,” says Andreasyan. “This has to be based on public consensus and solidarity.” She adds that the bill does not include the wording “sex education.”
Presumably, after finalizing state standards, the content of the subjects will be developed. Andreasyan says that there are no plans to develop a separate subject. Instead, what is being discussed is how to give children information on how to avoid dangers and protect themselves, which would be appropriate to a child’s age and not include wording that would give the opposite effect. Strengthening psychological services in schools and including parents in the process are also being discussed. “Maybe schools have to help parents find the best way to steer that conversation with their children,” Andreasyan says.