By Mariam Harutiunian, AFP
It was the fear in her children's eyes that finally convinced Anahit to leave her husband after years of abuse. Married at 19, Anahit had worried from the beginning about her husband's possessiveness and jealousy.
He followed her to university classes and forbade her to visit friends or even her parents on her own. The first time he struck her, all she had done was go alone to a shop to buy bread.
"When he learned what I had done, he punched me in the face and screamed that I was a prostitute," said Anahit, now 27. Years of abuse followed until she left him last year, taking her three young children to the only shelter for battered women in the Armenian capital Yerevan.
"I was suffering for the sake of our children, they need a father. But when he hit me in front of them and I saw fear in their eyes, I realized that for my children's sake I had to leave him," she said.
Anahit is rare in Armenia not only for seeking help and leaving an abusive relationship, but also for speaking out about what human rights groups say is widespread domestic violence. Armenians are proud of the strong family bonds that have endured for centuries in this remote and isolated ex-Soviet republic, proud of its history as the first state to adopt Christianity as state religion.
But some say those traditions are being warped, allowing abusers to act with impunity and police to turn a blind eye to domestic violence by claiming it is purely a "family matter". Rights group Amnesty International said that Armenia's tradition of strong family bonds "hides an institutionalized culture of silence on violence within the family and injustice for its victims."
As many as one in four Armenian women have at some time experienced violence at the hands of husbands or other family members, Amnesty International said in a report released last month. But the speaking out about abuse has remained a taboo, with family secrets remaining behind the closed doors of family homes.
"When my husband was beating me, my mother-in-law used to say that it meant he wasn't indifferent and that he loved me, and that her husband used to beat her as well," said Karina, 32, another woman at the shelter.
In a survey Armenia's Women's Rights Centre conducted last year, 88 percent of respondents said domestic violence was a private matter best handled within the home. That culture of indifference and secrecy extends to law enforcement, rights groups said, with police often ignoring abuse and in some cases pressuring women to drop complaints.
"Police endorse the view that domestic violence is an internal 'family matter' that should not be publicly pursued," the Amnesty report said. It said that during police training sessions run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, senior officers with more than 20 years experience said they had never dealt with a single case of domestic violence.
But activists are now hoping that a draft law to finally criminalize domestic violence will be adopted by parliament next spring. Unlike in many other countries, domestic violence is not dealt with separately under Armenian law and falls under general provisions for assault and other violent crimes.
"We hope that lawmakers will take our initiative seriously and that the silence on this problem will finally end," said Susanna Vartanian, the director of the Women's Rights Centre, which along with other non-governmental groups helped draft the bill.
Supporters of the bill say a separate law is needed in order to push police to deal with domestic violence and to protect women who decide to come forward about abuse. The law would make it mandatory for police to investigate allegations of domestic violence and legally prevent husbands from claiming that a woman's behavior was a "mitigating factor" in abuse.
"The police and the courts are not taking this problem seriously," said Rafik Petrosian, a pro-government lawmaker who supports the bill. "A strong family is simply the most important thing for Armenians. That's why the police try to reconcile spouses and to prevent divorce."
Activists are also pushing for government support for a nationwide network of crisis centers and shelters offering advice and protection to battered women. And while legal reforms are a vital step, many say changing public attitudes is just as important.
"This is a perversion of national traditions," said another lawmaker supporting the bill, Naira Zohrabian. "According to Armenian tradition a husband is the head of the family. But tradition doesn't say that the husband should be a tyrant and that the wife can't develop as an individual, can't work, can't decide what to wear or choose her own friends."