After years of foot-dragging and indecision, the Armenian authorities plan to enact soon a special law aimed at combatting domestic violence and helping its predominantly female victims.
Violence against women had for decades been a taboo subject in the socially conservative and male-dominated Armenian society. It has been receiving growing publicity in recent years thanks to the activities of women’s rights groups backed by international human rights watchdogs.
According to the Yerevan-based Women’s Resource Center, more than 50 Armenian women have been beaten to death and killed otherwise by their husbands or other relatives in the last five years. “This trend shows no signs of decline,” said a representative of the group, Anahit Simonian. “I think this is a very serious number and this process [of a enacting a law] must not drag on further.”
Justice Minister Davit Harutiunian expressed serious concern over these figures on Thursday. “Violence is not the foundation of a real and strong Armenian family,” he told a news conference.
Harutiunian said that the Armenian government intends to tackle the problem with a law drafted by the Justice Ministry last year. Both he and another senior ministry official, Gohar Hakobian, expressed hope that the bill will be debated and passed by the parliament soon.
If passed, the bill will introduce criminal and administrative liability for specific cases defined as domestic violence. It would also obligate the state to protect victims by providing them with special shelters or banning their violent spouses from approaching them and even their children.
Women’s rights groups say the Armenian police routinely tell assaulted and injured women to withdraw their crime reports on the grounds that they lack legal levers to prosecute attackers.Hakobian stressed that under the draft law the police will have to launch a criminal investigation even in case of such a withdrawal.
A 43-year-old woman in Yerevan interviewed by RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) claimed to have suffered physical, sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband for 20 years. “I was pregnant when he once kicked me and fell from my bed,” she said, adding that she now suffers from chronic health problems.
The woman, who did not want to be identified for fear of further violence, said she has not divorced him because she cannot support their three children on her own and does not want to upset her parents.“I was probably not very strong,” she added. “But the main factor was the honor of my parents.”
The Justice Ministry posted the proposed law against domestic violence on its website over two weeks ago to receive feedback from civic groups and ordinary citizens. The latter were encouraged to vote for or against its passage. More than 560 website visitors have backed the bill while 505 others have opposed it since then.
The almost evenly split vote highlights many Armenians’ enduring conservative views on the subject that are backed by some nationalist groups and pro-government politicians. They say any government interference in family affairs would run counter to Armenian traditions and undermine the fabric of the society.
This explains why similar legislations previously put forward by another government ministry and women’s NGOs did not even reach the parliament floor.
The non-governmental Coalition Against Violence has twice submitted a relevant measure to lawmakers since 2009. Its coordinator, Zaruhi Hovannisian, voiced support for the Justice Ministry bill on Friday. But, she cautioned, it is even more important to change attitudes of vulnerable women.
“A person must not tolerate violence against them,” said Hovannisian. “They must not get used to it.”