BY MARY MATOSIAN
Following the 1991 euphoria over the independence of Armenia, a number of socio-economic problems surfaced which Armenia and the diaspora were unprepared to handle and even grasp. The time has come when we, as Diasporan Armenians, pay more attention to the social issues in Armenia rather than only feeding and clothing the needy and engaging in solely humanitarian projects. While the latter is important, the prevailing backward mentalities regarding many issues act as a handicap for individuals and families, leaving them unable to improve their living conditions.
One such issue is domestic violence. While domestic violence is a worldwide occurrence, what is particular to Armenia is the denial of this problem; for the diaspora, it is a novel issue we have to come to grips with. Like any problem, we should not be embarrassed to name it and recognize it; instead, we should be ashamed if we don’t address it and rectify it. Slowly non-governmental organizations and independent observers are shedding more light on sexual harassment and favors in the workplace, domestic violence and psychological abuse, sexual assault, incest, and sex with minors. For us Armenians, such problems are not only foreign to our community but also a huge embarrassment. However, we have to overcome these feelings of shame and help those who are being victimized by such acts.
In Armenia, in addition to societal denial is the lack of government support to counter these problems. There are no laws to hold the perpetrators accountable or protect the victims, and only at the NGO level is there some support structure to assist the victims.
There are five stages of dealing with any negative issue in Armenia, be it extreme poverty, AIDS, trafficking, or domestic violence: Denial. It is thought that these things happen only in western, perverted societies, but not in Armenia. While it may be acknowledged that there are some cases, they are seen as rare and only occurring within bad families. When more evidence is brought forth, then one is questioned, even jailed, for libel, and accused of bringing out the negative and damaging Armenia’s image. These reactions are residues of Soviet society, where everything had to be presented as ideal, and even people with physical or mental disabilities were not seen in the streets, their facilities kept at the periphery of the city.
Today in Armenia independent studies have indicated that 40 percent are victims of domestic violence. Many families don’t even consider this to be a problem, and are not cognizant that violence is unacceptable. Therefore, these statistics are considered to be conservative.
While in Yerevan there is slightly more liberalism, by and large a woman has few options and is raised to be dependent and subservient to her husband in all aspects, including economically. She has no real say or right in the family. An empowered woman is considered to be a threat to the family. Women, especially in the rural areas, think that it is normal to be beaten, as it was the same with her parents. We observed, through my work with the Tufenkian Foundation’s Women Support Center, that a battered wife thinks her husband loves her, that he is beating her for her own good so she can improve herself, or that it is her fault for provoking him by not cooking or cleaning properly.
Psychological abuse is even worse in Armenia as it exists in about 70 percent in families. This is manifested in prohibiting a woman from leaving the house, or calling friends and family, not giving her any pocket money, and restricting other freedoms such as getting an education and being allowed to work.
Domestic violence is nurtured by the predominance in society of sexism and stereotypes, and a mentality that considers this a family matter that should be free from outside interference—police, parents, neighbors, etc.
We have a tremendous task ahead of us to fight such a destructive mentality and belief, and to raise awareness in Armenian society about domestic violence as an unacceptable, abhorrent, and punishable act. Fortunately there are active NGOs in Armenia for whom advocacy plays an important role.
After the brutal death of Zaruhi Petrosyan, other women have been killed or stabbed. A group of seven NGOs came together to create the “Coalition to Stop Domestic Violence in Armenia.” While the infrastructure (shelters, employment, legal protection) is lacking to help these women, we are still able to fight to protect women’s rights and give psychological and legal counseling, restore a woman’s self-worth and confidence, and empower her with the mechanisms to survive on her own and not be emotionally and economically dependent on an abusive husband.
Diasporan support for such organizations is of paramount importance. While money is always needed, equally important are volunteers and your letters and petitions to Armenia’s government officials to put pressure on them to recognize the problem and pass appropriate legislature.