There are proven methods to fracture social cohesion in Armenia. One of those is the topic of sex. In the public discourse, sex is often seen as being diametrically opposed to almost everything - religion, love, traditional values, even the motherland. With this in mind, many will be shocked to hear that sex does exist in Armenia, and this is very normal.
Why does this common, very personal and more than natural desire find such resistance in Armenia? Why do we prefer to not talk about sex and choose to stay silent about the issues associated with it?
Fears: Why is Sex Taboo in Armenian Families?
Lawyer Zaruhi Hovhannisyan believes that the subject of sexuality is taboo not only in Armenia but in all patriarchal societies.
“Teaching about sex and sexuality and being able to talk about them out loud is a cultural condition. Since sexuality is directly related to a person’s emotions, making it taboo creates control over a person’s freedom and autonomy,” says Hovhannisyan adding that in patriarchal societies women’s sexuality is especially sensitive because it is the one thing that can be controlled. However, a woman’s sexuality can be the road to her liberation, Hovhannisyan adds.
Since sexuality is perceived to be inseparable from the idea of love, the liberalization of love has also become a restricted topic for society. Hence, discourse on sexuality and love are viewed as a means to freedom and liberation.
Hovhannisyan believes that a woman’s body in Armenian society has always been considered a tool, a way to create a mutually beneficial union, a commodity. “In the past, and even sometimes today, fathers determined who their daughter could marry,” she explains. “He would decide who is suitable for his daughter and why. In reality, this fierce dispute against sexual literacy is taking place because the patriarchy does not want to give up its power.”
According to Hovhannisyan, in Armenian society love and sex are topics that are not discussed with children, not even between spouses. As a result, children go looking for this kind of information and find it everywhere except within the family. This is why first sexual experiences for many are disastrous and can be very risky.
The RA Law on Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights, adopted in 2002, clearly states that everyone has the right to receive reliable and complete information on issues regarding sexual and reproductive health, including the benefits, effectiveness and possible hazards of existing methods for fertility regulation.
According to Hovhannisyan, by keeping our silence for the past 17 years, we have violated people’s rights to be informed and have left them alone with their problems and diseases.
Sex and the Traditional Family: A Reflection of Traditional Ignorance
Decoding the term “traditional Armenian family” is quite difficult. No one has a clear answer as to what "traditional" entails in this context or what an Armenian family means. How is it different from a traditional German family or traditional American family?
If one was to assume that traditional means archaic, in other words, customs passed down from the past, then it is important to take note of a few of them.
The family is an institute of social coexistence that came into being along with human history and the only one that has been preserved. However, the institute of marriage has changed in form and essence throughout the years, modifying itself to modern models of civilization, moving from polygamy to monogamy.
In ancient Armenia, child marriages were a normal phenomenon. Usually, such marriages were pre-arranged by the parents and by the child’s “physiological” readiness. During pre-Christian times, Armenians were allowed to marry off their boys when they were 14 years old and girls when they were 12. Children who had come of age weren’t allowed to marry without their parent’s consent. Following the adoption of Christianity, family matters were managed by the Armenian Church.
Yet, in the fourth century, Armenian Catholicos Sahak Partev defined certain rules that marriages, without the couple’s consent and age appropriateness, would not be allowed. Priests weren’t allowed to conduct weddings without first evaluating and questioning the couple. Parents who forced their children to marry were punished by law.
Within the context of human rights, Armenian literature has also covered the topic of child marriages. One hundred years ago, this had become a contemporary issue for Armenian society. Maro, a poem by writer Hovhannes Tumanyan in 1887, is the best example of how awareness was being raised on this issue. This literary masterpiece about forcing a nine-year-old girl to get married showcases the irreversible consequences a child marriage entails and how it ends in tragedy for the family and society.
Today, in Armenia, traditional family affairs are regulated by legislation. The minimum age for marriage for both sexes is eighteen. Some can marry at seventeen years old with the consent of their parents or guardians and in special cases even sixteen (if one of the partners is at least 18 years of age). However, a couple’s combined age cannot be lower than 34. According to data from the Statistical Committee of Armenia, 524 cases of child marriage took place in 2011, and 338 cases in 2013. There is no new data on those numbers today because child marriages mainly take place in the regions, with no legal certification, therefore are not legally binding. These cases often become apparent only when a woman goes to the hospital to deliver her baby.
Based on data from the Statistical Committee of Armenia, the birth delivery rate for girls aged 15 -19 in 1990 was 62 for every 1000 girls. In 2000, it was 32 girls for every 1000 and in 2012 it was 26 girls. In 2019, in Armavir Marz alone three 16-year-old mothers were registered. The hospital reported these three cases to the police. Colonel Nelly Duryan of the Armenian police made an announcement where she stated that the three underage girls were married and both families were present during their weddings. It was also made clear as that the three underaged girls had sexual intercourse only after they turned 16 years old.
According to data from the World Health Organization, girls under the age of fifteen are five times more likely to be at risk of maternal mortality than mothers aged twenty. At this age, complications from pregnancy rise 70-80 percent, including miscarriages, stillbirths, etc.
According to the UN, today in the world, 700 million girls were married before their 18th birthday. Those girls who are forced to marry at an early age are often subjected to sexual, physical and mental abuse by their husbands. These girls are deprived of a childhood and have their lives at risk.
A resolution passed by the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly on the dangers of child marriages, states that if we don’t prevent early and forced marriages soon, by 2030, 150 million underage girls will be married.
Conservative circles in Armenian society believe that by rejecting or avoiding the topic of sexuality, the traditional Armenian family will stay intact and rule out any possibility of sexual incompatibility between spouses. Meanwhile, according to the Statistical Committee of Armenia, the number of marriages in Armenia has declined by 6.6 percent, and the number of divorces has increased by eight percent. In 2018, for every 1000 registered marriage, 258 resulted in divorce; in 2017, the number of divorces was 259. Forty-five percent of these divorces took place within the first four years of marriage.
The Absence of Sex Education and its Consequences
Sex education is not about having students sit around and have discussions about sex. It’s about sexual literacy, and one of its aims is to help form sexual behavior appropriate to a person’s age. Sex education has never been taught in Armenian schools. Several years ago a pilot educational project was implemented called “Life Skills.” However, this subject quickly turned into a homeroom class. Today, Armenian schools teach a subject called “Healthy Lifestyle,” where students are taught about the adverse effects of smoking, drinking alcohol and using drugs. However, this subject is mainly taught by physical education teachers.
The absence of sex education and sexual literacy has dire consequences, from sexually transmitted diseases to infertility.
According to the Ministry of Health’s 2018 Statistical Yearbook on Health and Healthcare, near 50,000 cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) are registered in Armenia yearly. The most widespread STD is trichomoniasis, with chlamydia and gonorrhea coming in second along with other viral STDs. While some STDs can be treated, many can linger for life. It’s usually men who get more STDs and go see a specialist, but women aren’t far behind. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and other STDs affect reproductive health and can cause infertility in both men and women. This is because they don’t seek medical help in time or try to cure the STD themselves.
According to the Statistical Committee of Armenia, infertility rates in Armenia for the past several years have been stably low. In 2017, the infertility rate was 16.8 percent, and the populate growth index was -0.21. This number is not enough to maintain the current population numbers; every seventh couple in Armenia is infertile.To improve reproductive health in Armenia, the Ministry of Health will be allocating 210 million AMD in 2020 for infertile couples, which will cover medical examinations and in vitro fertilization procedures.
According to state data from the Ministry of Health, 47 percent of pregnancies in Armenia result in abortion. Thirty-seven percent of women have had at least one abortion, 63 percent of those women have had more than two abortions. Many abortions are also done at home in Armenia, however, there is no data on how often. Hence, it can be deduced that the real number of abortions is much higher than what official data is telling us. Women with higher education have less abortions, possibly because they are more familiar with different contraceptive methods.
Hymenoplasty, also known as the reconstruction of the “virginity tissue” is quite widespread in the region. In Armenia, this operation is done officially in only one hospital, however, hymenoplasty is quite cheap in the black market, starting from 20,000 AMD (approx. $40 US) all the way to 100,000 AMD ($208 US) depending on its expiration date. The restored hymen can stay intact in a woman’s body for a couple of hours up to two days. This is why many girls get the operation on the day of their wedding. There is only one reason for this: the public fetishization of virginity.
Systemic Courage to Face Facts
According to the UN, more than four in ten women live in fear of refusing their partner’s sexual demands. However, you won’t find this kind of data in Armenia, because awareness about marital rape is quite low. Sexual violence is often dismissed and in many incidents, it also goes unpunished, especially when the perpetrator is the husband. The Criminal Code of Armenia does not include this kind of punishment.
According to official police data, in 2016 there were 80 cases of sexual abuse reported against minors. In 2017, there were 71 cases of sexual abuse, in 2018 there were 50. During the first quarter of 2019, 14 cases of sexual abuse have already been reported.
The Investigative Committee of Armenia, however, has completely different numbers. Between 2015 and 2017 the Investigative Committee had examined 449 cases of sexual abuse. In three years the number of these criminal cases increased by 30.
In 2016, 70 percent of all cases under investigation were cases of sexual abuse against children. In 2017 it was 62.7 percent or 101 out of 161 cases.
In the above-mentioned cases, 301 people have been indicted. Out of these 301, 170 were the victim’s relative, friend, family member or neighbor.
This difference in data stems from the fact that there is no unified database in Armenia. A unified database would allow cases from different sources to be identified and would create a more clear picture. There is also no unified statistical research being done on victims of domestic violence.
This year, Armenia is on the threshold of passing two important legal acts. One is the RA Draft Law on the Fight Against Violence, and the other is the Istanbul Convention. In all likelihood, these documents will instigate new discussions and possibly even be exploited by those who see these as a threat to the Armenian family.
Starting from 2014, there have been discussions about the need for separate legislation against discrimination. Since 2014, the Minister of Justice changed four times, and the draft law for the Fight Against Violence has yet to reach the National Assembly of Armenia.
The Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention is an agreement on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It has been signed by all member states of the Council of Europe, including Armenia, which signed the convention in 2014. However, it has not ratified it till today.
Besides a lack of education, Armenia also lacks systematic courage and the political will to confront these facts. Once Armenian society confronts these facts, then it will be possible to discuss ratifying another very important document - the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, also known as the Lanzarote Convention, which Armenia signed nine years ago.