A Hidden Epidemic: Domestic Violence in Armenia
By Varouj Vartanian
There is progress towards gender equality in Armenia, albeit at a slow and gradual pace.
Deep-rooted cultural norms in Armenia that perpetuate the notion of women being relegated to female roles in the household and the idea that the wife must submit to the demands of the husband are attitudes that are hindering progress towards a more civil and equal society.
Still, in 2023, it is difficult to challenge patriarchal norms at a large scale, and it will require persistent efforts via education, open dialogue, and legislation to have a chance at battling deeply ingrained beliefs in Armenia about feminism and equality. While challenges exist, many Armenian men in this new generation are more open-minded regarding an egalitarian future and are more accepting of the youth's rejection of outdated traditional beliefs and practices.
The World Economic Forum annually publishes the Global Gender Gap Report to measure gender equality, and Armenia was ranked 61st out of 146 countries in 2023. In the previous year, Armenia was ranked 89, and in 2021 was 114. This index benchmarks gender equality progress by assessing gender gap in economic opportunities, education, health, and political leadership. A jump from 114 to 61 in a span of three years is impressive, and this upward trajectory should be welcomed as it emphasizes the substantive efforts undertaken by government initiatives and NGOs to narrow the gender gap and foster an inclusive environment for all.
Despite these notable strides towards gender equality, Armenia continues to grapple with a deeply concerning issue that is in fact quite common still – the prevalence of domestic violence. Domestic violence against women in Armenia is a taboo topic that most don’t like to think about. According to the international NGO Human Rights Watch, 331 domestic violence cases were investigated in the first half of 2019. For 2022, Armenia's Investigative Committee stated that the numbers had increased to 391 criminal cases related to domestic violence, but only 53 resulted in an indictment. Critics of women’s rights and feminist organizations senselessly claim that domestic violence isn’t a serious problem in Armenia if there is a low amount of cases per year. However, it is understated that most domestic abuse against women goes unreported. A 2011 OSCE study in Armenia uncovered that approximately 60% of Armenian women have experienced domestic violence at least once in their lifetime. Such pervasive levels of violence should call for united efforts from policymakers, community leaders, religious figures, and teachers to create a more safe and supportive home environment for women.
The 2018 Biannual Newsletter of Yerevan's Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women stated that the shelters, crisis centers, and NGOs united under CSVW in Armenia receive about 5,000 distress calls annually via their hotline services from victims who have endured domestic violence and rape. These victims seek advice and help from CSVW, an NGO committed to offering vital support in overcoming psychological trauma, providing guidance on leaving abusive partners, and fostering strategies to remain safe in precarious circumstances. A main problem in Armenia is that women don’t feel safe reporting abusive partners to police, or have the belief that nothing will come out of a filed report. It raises deep concerns about the efficacy of law enforcement investigating crimes when women bravely step forward to seek justice but are often met with dismissal or indifference from police officers.
There is overwhelming evidence that women who have been killed by their husbands, more often than not, had a history of being abused. This systemic failure of ignoring reports and pleas is one of the reasons why women are unnecessarily killed. Only 52 total homicides were recorded in Armenia in 2020 (among a population of ~2,900,000), yet, up to a quarter of total homicides in Armenia in recent years are attributed to domestic violence against women. While Armenia should be commended and respected for being a country with one of the lowest murder rates in the entire world, it becomes imperative to question why disproportionate violence against women continues to be normalized. Simply put, the system ignoring women who seek assistance in dire circumstances leads to devastating consequences such as death. If even law enforcement won't intervene to protect a female civilian, how else should she escape the torment?
There are even many officers who would like to help victims of abuse, but simply cannot use their power to help them because there is no criminal code to prosecute the suspects. First and foremost, policymakers need to criminalize domestic violence. The 2018 law (bill: "On the Prevention of Domestic Violence, Protection of Victims of Violence and Restoration of Peace in the Family") passed in Armenia's National Assembly did little to nothing regarding the advancement of women’s rights, as it only requires convicted perpetrators of domestic violence to pay fines, and at the request of the victim, be granted a restraining order against the perpetrator.
The 2018 law proposes the following three methods of “protection measures” for victims of violence within the family: the police department issuing a verbal or written warning to the perpetrator, physical intervention only in emergency situations (i.e. the police will only intervene if the officer believes that that there is “imminent risk” of repeated violence, or if an act of domestic violence occurs within one year of the offender being given a warning), and a restraining order issued up to 6 months (with the possibility to extend it to 12 months total). In the case of a situation in which police intervention is allowed per the law’s articles, the officer will be required to only remove the perpetrator from the premises and inform them that they are not allowed to visit the home or contact the victim again until the restraining order expires. Violating these terms will result in a fine – a punishment that won’t deter most.
What is the origin of this law?
Armenia was urged to pass a women’s rights law otherwise there would be a reduction in human rights grants provided by foreign entities, such as from the European Union. The National Assembly didn’t even draft this bill, and reluctantly became involved by asking the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women to put together a draft. It’s transparent that the prominent reason that such a weak bill even passed was because Armenia was pressured in order to receive monetary grants. Women’s rights NGOs in Armenia have made demands since the early 2000s, yet Armenian society has decided to shamelessly ignore the appeals of a group of individuals who make up half of the population. While this law could be considered a good first step, as it’s an attempt to combat domestic violence, this law does little to nothing to discourage domestic abuse or to protect victims from future abuse. A fine or verbal warning incapable of deterring an abuser from repeating these actions is futile.
The punishment for assault or battery against a partner should result in a prison sentence coupled with rehabilitation (e.g., anger management courses, psychological examination, therapy, spousal abuse counseling, etc.). Many of these abusers continue to abuse and are only then apprehended and served a prison sentence once the partner has been murdered. In many of these cases, even if the perpetrator is convicted, they spend only a few years in prison before being released back into the public with an opportunity to victimize a new partner. If these issues exist and the government is aware of the actions that must be taken to resolve said issues, how much longer will Armenia need to wait to see adequate reform?
After reaching out to Human Rights NGO, Armen Gharibyan informed us of their 2022 report which interviewed 14 victims of domestic violence in Armenia, and learned that all 14 victims mentioned that "police had not explained their rights to them, had not specified the types of domestic violence, and were not willing to hear about the continued violence". The vast majority of victims added that the officers treated them with contempt, sarcasm, and skepticism. A victim at Mashtots Police Department was interrogated after filing a report and she was threatened with having her child taken away if she didn’t behave herself.
Another victim who filed a police report was scolded by the police officer for being a “snitch” against her husband. One police officer lectured another victim, asking her why she kept returning to him if he was beating her. A victim who reported domestic violence to the Vagharshapat Police Department was harassed the following day by three officers who tried to court her and pursue intimate relations. One victim also reported that at the Shengavit Police Station, a male police officer sexually assaulted her by approaching her from behind and hugging her shoulders.
A trusted source that we interviewed at one of the women's rights NGOs in Armenia told us that almost nothing has changed since the 2018 law was enacted, not only because the law itself is weak, but also because there have been no societal changes in terms of attitude towards domestic violence. In NGO circles, the common opinion seems to be that police officers need additional training and must follow an empathetic and understanding approach when it comes to dealing with women who have been victims of violence, because the findings and investigations show that police overwhelmingly ignore the pleas of abused women who are seeking assistance.
Many women's rights activists have voiced concerns over the 2018 law and have additionally pointed out flaws in the judicial system that should be addressed. Stella Chandiryan and Ani Jilozian wrote in a 2018-2021 Femicide Report that details of evident abuse and cruelty were glossed over in court cases and irrational excuses were made to exonerate the defendant (e.g. victim is not innocent because she committed an immoral act). In other cases when the defendant expressed remorse, gave a partial confession of guilt, or didn't have a criminal history, there was leniency in sentencing despite findings showing evidence of brutal murder.
The report by Chandiryan and Jilozian goes on to argue that Clause 7 of the RA Criminal Code Article 62, Section 1 is problematic because if the victim committed “immoral behavior”, then this would qualify as a mitigating factor when it came to sentencing the suspect. Another problem pointed out is that the RA Criminal Code does not define violence against women, nor are there any provisions to take into consideration that the victim being abused is a female. There is a dire need for reform to specifically show the female population that they can trust the legal institutions, and that indeed there is a system that does care about their well-being. When such a high percentage of the Armenian population has experienced domestic violence, there must be laws in place to provide protections for those in such vulnerable and desperate situations.
There are several steps that Armenian policymakers can take today to target domestic violence. 1) All domestic violence cases must be investigated in a tactful manner, to mitigate risks and prevent any further harm to the victim.
2) Women should have easy access to women's shelters and social workers who can professionally assist. Women’s shelters and NGOs should additionally receive funding from the state.
3) Police should receive additional training on how to properly respond to domestic violence calls to ensure safety.
4) Police and social workers should receive additional training in identifying signs of domestic violence.
5) More stringent laws and tougher punishments to perpetrators of domestic violence.
Many positive developments are underway in Armenia, however, primarily thanks to the Women's Support Center NGO and CEDAW. In an email correspondence with Ani Jilozian, who is the Director of Development at the Women's Support Center NGO, she stated that the center has been involved in helping pass domestic violence legislation. There are new drafts circulating in Parliament which are meant to be introductions of bills to be proposed for legislation, and they are hopeful that the purported bills become adopted in September 2023.
While legal reform is a great step towards ending domestic violence, there must be change in society as well. When a woman is killed because of domestic violence, blame is put on the husband or boyfriend, but the blame should be put on all men who don’t act despite having knowledge of domestic violence in their circles or family affairs. If change is to occur, it won’t happen top-down with the government leading the fight. Change starts at home with the individual. The biggest challenge for Armenia will be combatting how deeply ingrained it is in both men and women that it’s acceptable for a husband to hit a woman.
Armenian residents: If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women at +374 95 43 37 43 or Women’s Support Center at +374 099 88 78 08 for confidential assistance. The Women's Support Center provides comprehensive support from social workers, and a shelter for women. All calls can be anonymous, and even a fake name can be provided. No calls are rejected.
Please click the link below to access a variety of useful advice and information: https://www.womensupportcenter.org/safety-plan
(Varouj Vartanian is a fourth-year medical student with an interest in public health and medical anthropology. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard University.)