As elsewhere in the South Caucasus, Armenian women can expect to receive an array of toasts, flowers and little gifts on March 8, International Women’s Day. But there is one thing Armenian women won’t enjoy, or get anytime soon – a law covering domestic violence.
Citing alleged shortcomings in its provisions, the Armenian government in January rejected a proposed bill on domestic violence, legislation that non-governmental organizations, international experts and government members had worked to get adopted for seven years.
The Coalition to Stop Violence against Women, which unites seven non-governmental organizations (NGOs), has now re-drafted the bill, but hopes for passage are lower today than a few months ago. “If before, Social Welfare Ministry workers cooperated with us and believed the law would be passed, now we do not have even that assistance,” said Women’s Support Center spokesperson Perchuhi Kazhoian. “They do not say they disapprove, but their messages make it clear there is no political will for it.”
Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, who used to frequently raise the issue, has fallen silent. Work with the United Nations Population Fund ended after 2011 with the conclusion of a project against gender-based violence. Lobbying efforts from local NGOs go nowhere. The need for such legislation, however, has not vanished, women’s rights activists say, pointing out that during the first two months of 2014 five Armenian women between the ages of 28 and 38 were murdered by their husbands.
While advocates believe that Armenia’s long-time tradition of keeping silent about domestic violence has been overcome, women still usually refrain from going to the police about abuse. A domestic-violence law would make it easier for victims to file complaints and gain protection, advocates say.
“Where should they turn if there isn’t a designated department [for domestic violence], trained police officers, when there isn’t a law regulating their issues?” asked Women’s Support Center Director Maro Matosian. “In many cases, they turn to the police then retract their complaint because the officer tells the woman she has to pay an administrative fine, [or] shames her for complaining about her husband.”
Colonel Nelly Durian, a senior official for police investigations, concedes that many regional police departments lack professionally trained officers to handle domestic violence cases, but stressed that progress on addressing domestic violence has been made. The number of complaints from alleged domestic-violence victims has increased by “about 20 percent” since 2009 “due to [police stations’] increased reliability,” she said. Official police statistics show lower incidences of domestic violence in 2013 (“around 500”), than in 2012 (760 cases).
Rights activists believe only extreme cases of abuse are registered with law-enforcement. Even then, an appropriate police response may not follow, said Lida Minasian, a project manager for A Society without Violence, a women’s rights non-governmental organization. The parents of one 30-year-old Yerevan resident, Tatevik Nikoghosian, went to the police last summer after her husband allegedly stabbed their daughter 25 times, damaging her heart, lungs and liver.
He currently is in jail, awaiting trial. Previous attempts by the parents to involve the police after reportedly vicious beatings had failed. Minasian and other women’s rights activists underline that the attack could have been prevented if a law existed that provided for training for police officers and social workers, restraining orders on abusive husbands, and shelters for abused women. Only one shelter for abused women, operated by the Women’s Support Center in Yerevan exists in Armenia.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare is now drafting a social-assistance bill, which includes several provisions on domestic violence, but does not provide for police training, or measures designed to prevent abuse. Deputy Labor and Social Welfare Minister Filaret Berikian told EurasiaNet.org that the ministry does not oppose a law on domestic violence.
The new bill, Berikian continued, “certainly does not replace the one on domestic violence, but some of its provisions would at least allow assistance to abused women.” Kazhoian, though, scoffed that the bill “is like saying ‘Go get abused, then we will help you.’“ The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women intends to show its reworked version of the domestic-violence bill to the labor and justice ministries this spring before resubmitting it to parliament.
“When a law is passed, it sends a message that the state cannot tolerate” a given crime, said Matosian. “It is also a message to courts that are reluctant to handle such cases.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter and editor in Yerevan.