Maro Matosian (photo: Aram Arkun)

Yerevan Women’s Support Center Director Discusses Efforts to Combat Domestic Violence in Watertown Talk

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WATERTOWN — Violence toward women is more prevalent than thought in Armenia, and in the diaspora it is one of the unfortunate legacies inherited from Ottoman (Turkish) Armenia. On March 16, a large number of Boston-area Armenians came together in support of efforts to combat this violence through the Women’s Support Center (WSC) of Yerevan. Maro Matosian, founder and executive director of the WSC, was the main speaker at the event held at the Armenian American Social Club (Papken Suni Agoump).

Lenna Garibian (photo: Aram Arkun)

Matosian, born in Romania, emigrated to the US in 1973, and studied art history. After living in a number of countries, she relocated to Armenia in 1991. There she worked nine years as country director of the Aznavour for Armenia Fund and, starting in 2006, another nine years as country director for the Tufenkian Foundation, while she established the WSC in 2010.

The fundraiser and informational evening was organized by three women in the Boston area, Lenna Garibian, Yelena Bisharyan and Martha Mensoian, under the name Friends of the WSC. Garibian, professionally a brand strategist who works as associate director of C Space, opened the evening. She related that visiting the center over the summer with her sister turned out to be a moving experience which convinced her to support it. She said she was impressed that “The staff has created an environment that is incredibly efficient, structured, well-run. It is clean, but it is also warm, loving and inclusive. It is an amazing place.” The staff there personally take risks in their work and is forced to operate secretly. Nonetheless, Garibian said, they were incredibly optimistic.

Garibian challenged the narrative that domestic violence activism destroys the fabric of society in Armenia. Instead, she stressed that society has to protect those who are most vulnerable. In her eyes, she said, Armenian society was behind the West by at least several decades since women in Armenia were facing conditions similar to those of women in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. And, she said, despite all the progress in the United States, women here continue to face problems today in striving for their rights.

Garibian introduced Dr. Antranig Kasbarian, a lecturer, activist and Armenian Revolutionary Federation leader who used to be editor of the Armenian Weekly. With a doctorate in geography focused on Artsakh from Rutgers University, he joined the Tufenkian Foundation in 2003 and served as executive director until 2015. He continues to work at this foundation as a trustee and development of development. The Tufenkian Foundation was one of the organizational founders of WSC in 2010 together with the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Kasbarian also happens to be Matosian’s husband.

Kasbarian remarked on the evolution of diasporan attitudes toward Armenia. Initially after independence, Armenia was seen, he said, as a “basket case” requiring emergency aid, but over time, more assistance programs work toward long-term rehabilitative and developmental assistance, helping people to help themselves. The diaspora, he said, has a lot more than money to give, and can be proactive in dealing with Armenia.

Antranig Kasbarian (photo: Aram Arkun)

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Kasbarian noted that Armenia is constantly changing. Instead of looking to the government, as in the Soviet period, as the source of all ills or remedies, people are beginning to become involved in social movements for change. Though he said there is no true working class movement, there are small embers. He gave examples of activism in protection of parks, against illegal mining and opposition to price hikes in public transportation which have achieved a degree of success.

The WSC is another example. In less than eight years, it brought women’s rights, gender equality and the issue of domestic violence into the public limelight. These used to be considered household private problems, Kasbarian said, but now, even if grudgingly, the public authorities are acknowledging that these are social concerns.

He revealed that the WSC started with seed money of about $50,000 annually, and praised former US Ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch, who pushed the bureaucrats at USAID to co-fund the project. USAID funding only continued for two years, until Yovanovitch was transferred to the Ukraine.

Kasbarian concluded, “That small experiment [WSC] has turned into probably the best run women’s service provider in Armenian today, certainly with regard to domestic violence.”

Matosian, after thanking her Boston-area organizers, provided an overview of domestic violence and its aftereffects, and gave a concise history of recent developments in the US beginning with the Anita Hill case in 1991. She pointed out that it is a problem globally and occurs in all social classes. The feminist movement in the US combatted it and its achievements can be applied to Armenia, she explained.

Matosian illustrated her talk with slides and depicted patriarchy in action in Armenia. People there still believe, she said, that women are still considered as less intelligent while men must be the leaders of society. Soap operas are one example of popular culture’s understanding of women. Women are depicted in them as weak, cheated, and hysterical and face frequent violence from men. Advertisements in Armenian media replicate such stereotypes.

Armenian politicians on Women’s Day, March 8, issue statements stressing procreation, obedience, and beauty as important aspects of women’s lives. Nobody mentions women’s intellect, creativity, or leadership abilities. On the other hand, Matosian gave examples of violence emerging in various incidents involving politicians, who slap or hit women in public.

Matosian declared that domestic violence is fed by patriarchy, gender stereotypes and cultural violence, and all three exist in Armenia. According to the OSCE and Amnesty International, one in four women in Armenia experience domestic violence, while sixty percent report domestic abuse. Furthermore, other studies show that a majority of Armenians justify such abuse.

To change this situation, the WSC, Matosian said, works to empower women through its safe house, legal assistance, psychological counselling, employment assistance and victim education. It tries to educate communities and in particular journalists, social workers and police officers. Finally, it attempts to engage stakeholders to make systemic changes in Armenia. Just helping individual victims will not change the overall situation, Matosian said.

At this point, Matosian screened a short video about the work of the center prepared in 2015, for the center’s fifth anniversary. It included testimony of some survivors of violence who explained how the center helped them, allowing them, and in some cases their children, to fashion happy healthy lives.

Afterwards, Matosian provided further details. The women’s safehouse, she said, is in a confidential location and serves 40-50 women and children annually. Women usually stay up to three months. In 2017, 2,024 telephone calls were fielded, and 307 women were helped there. Seventy-three percent enjoy lives free of abuse afterwards. This figure, Matosian explained, was high even for the US, but it was because the women know that if they went back to their abusers they would be killed. In addition, 57 percent of WSC clients were able to find employment.

The center promotes activism, because, as Maro said in Armenian, the crying baby gets the milk. For example, when maternity leave was being cut in a ministry, women and their babies protested, and 20,000 signatures were collected within a week, so this cut was retracted. Another time, polyclinics were going to stop giving free vaccines and medical care to young children up to seven years old but women activists got this retracted too after protests.

Maro portrayed other positive changes in Armenian society. In 2014, the police created a domestic violence department, meaning that for the first time the Armenian state recognized through its very title that domestic violence exists in Armenia. The police who initially would state that women are provoking men now are beginning to understand the seriousness of the situation.

A domestic violence law was passed early this year due both to activism “from below,” and European Union pressure “from above” as part of its conditions for partnership with Armenia. This law provides for training, shelter, protective orders, and the confidentiality of the victim, but, Matosian pointed out, also has gaps, most important of which is the lack of criminalization of the abuser’s acts. Furthermore, insult or “betrayal” of the abuser will diminish any punishment. Mediation is demanded by this law, but the two parties are not equal in power, so this is not helpful. Matosian hopes this law will be improved over time, as took place under similar circumstances in neighboring Georgia.

Interestingly, a Russian foundation backed by the Russian government was funding a campaign in Armenia against the law. During the discussion session, Matosian said that it was part of measures to resist rapprochement of Armenian society with the West. They spread false news such as that children would be taken away from their parents and their organs would be sold, or not allowing children to eat ice cream would be considered abuse.

The Armenian Church, Matosian said, initially opposed the law, but changed its stance when the Armenian government itself changed and started supporting passage of the law.

Matosian declared that other Armenian women’s organizations never went public with their cases domestically, but WSC had two prominent successes which had become major public cases and positive examples. Mariam Gevorkyan was a young woman from a poor family who married a rich fellow villager who had moved to St. Petersburg, Russia. When she came to her new home, the husband’s family took away her passport, and exposed her to severe abuse and even mutilation, primarily through her mother-in-law. Though kept in isolation, her screams concerned the neighbors so much that she was sent back to Armenia.

Now 20, she wanted justice and went through a one-year court trial, with WSC support. The husband was pardoned on president’s day, but her mother-in-law was caught and received three years in prison.

The second big public case was that of Hasmik Khachatryan, who appeared in the WSC fifth anniversary video. Her mother-in-law was a famous fortune teller in favor with the Armenian oligarchy. Consequently, the mother-in-law thought she would easily win the trial against the younger woman, but it received a lot of publicity, including from the international community, as well as protests. Khachatryan went on to have success with a small business baking traditional Armenian sweets, and received recognition in 2017 from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) of Armenia for her willpower, courage and her achievements.

Matosian said the center now has an annual budget of $153,000. Seventy-two percent goes directly to services and medical care for women and children, training sessions and printing. Annual revenues are $145,000 a year.

International grants are not very constant, so it relies primarily on support from the Tufenkian Foundation, AIWA and individual donors. It costs $1,035 to keep a mother and two children for two months in a shelter. That cost includes food, medical care as well as police security.

Matosian concluded with a call for diasporans to work to keep officials in Armenia accountable for their actions. The lack of full participation of Armenian women, who form the majority of the population now, in the economy weakens the country, she said, whereas if there is gender equality, Armenian society would also become more democratic.

After her presentation, Matosian responded to a wide a variety of questions from the audience.

Donors can find out about the WSC at its website (http://www.womensupportcenter.org) and donate through the Tufenkian Foundation.

 

 

 

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