Archbishop Mikael Ajapahian speaks at a public discussion in Yerevan.

Armenia Set to Finally Pass Law Against Domestic Violence

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YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — 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 enacting a law] must not drag on further.”

Justice Minister Davit Harutiunian expressed serious concern over these figures on October 5. “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.

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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 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 I 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.”

 

Support from Archbishop

A high-ranking clergyman of the Armenian Apostolic Church has voiced support for government efforts to combat domestic violence even as they were angrily denounced by socially conservative groups on Monday.

The Gyumri-based Archbishop Mikael Ajapahian spoke this week during a heated public discussion in Yerevan on the law drafted by the Armenian Ministry of Justice.

The ministry invited non-governmental organizations supporting and opposing tougher government action against domestic violence to publicly present their arguments. The meeting descended into chaos as the two sides bitterly argued over the wisdom of the proposed legislation.

Representatives of several mostly obscure groups vehemently objecting to the government initiative stood by their claims that the West and the European Union in particular are forcing Armenia to enact the bill in order to weaken Armenian families. One of them, Hayk Nahapetian, questioned official statistics showing that more than 50 Armenian women have been beaten to death and killed otherwise by their husbands or other relatives in the last five years. The scale of the problem is grossly exaggerated by pro-Western civic groups, he claimed.

Ajapahian disagreed. “Even if there is some foreign intervention or a desire to please some foreign forces … why should we see a non-existent conspiracy? I personally don’t see any conspiracy,” he said.

“If I have a normal family, if I am a loving father, a loving husband or a loving son, if I love and am loved, which article of this law on prevention of domestic violence could harm me?” the archbishop went on. “So do not create imaginary monsters, do not fight against imaginary monsters, and be tolerant towards each other.”

Ajapahian, whose see is Shirak province, at the same time urged the Ministry of Justice to “take into account and allay” concerns expressed by critics.

Justice Minister Harutiunian, also present at the discussion, was at pains to disprove their claim that the bill paves the way for forcible separations of children from their allegedly violent parents. “You haven’t even read the law,” he told a woman who continued to claim the opposite.

Unable to convince their opponents, a visibly irritated Harutiunian and some civic activists campaigning domestic violence walked of the meeting hall moments later. The minister made clear that he remains determined to send the bill, strongly backed by women’s rights groups, to the Armenian parliament for approval.