Sexual violence in the family: a taboo topic in Armenia

2 April 2018
Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women holds a protest march under the slogan 'Stop being indifferent to violence' in Yerevan, 25 November 2016. (Photolur)

Spousal rape and sexual violence affects many women in Armenia, and cultural taboos and shaming of victims means that women often do not come forward. While changes in the law were supposed to counter this, many activists say the problem of sexual violence remains dire, and the women affected are still left with little protection.

Armine (not her real name) has married twice. Her first marriage lasted only a few days, because she found out that her husband and his step-mother were in an intimate relationship, and were using the marriage as a cover.

Five years later she met another man and went to Russia with him. She did not have a residence permit, so she had to stay at home. When he would return home from work in the evening, he would look for a reason to start arguing and beating her.

‘He hit me with a chair, with dishes. He tore my clothes, beat me again and made me have sex with him. One time I fainted from the pain, and he poured water over my head’, she says.

Armine’s life was relatively calm when she was pregnant. However, after her child was born, the violence became even more severe. Each time he wanted to have sex with her, she asked him to use a condom. But this made him even angrier, and he refused to use one. Armine got pregnant four times, and had abortions every time. She did not have money to buy contraceptives, and it was her husband who brought her the medication for the abortions.

‘Once, one of our acquaintances came to visit. I told her everything and she helped me escape. At night I took my baby, ran directly to the airport from home, and came to Armenia’, she says.

Armine did not go to the police because she is sure nothing would come of it. She is also afraid that her husband would seek revenge should she go to the police.

‘People will say: “how is it that you could not even live with two different men? you are guilty. You are immoral” ’, Armine says.

Shamed into silence

According to data provided to OC Media by the Armenian police, there were only 112 cases of sexual violence against women in 2016; in 2017 the official number decreased to 94.

However, victims of sexual violence often do not go to the police. Zara Hovhannisyan, an activist from the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, says that this can be explained by women’s fear of being shamed as a result of sexual violence, and a fear of being blamed for the situation.

‘The topic is taboo in Armenia; it’s considered shameful. Women are afraid that people will blame them for what happened, will say that they allowed the violence to happen, went to the wrong place, or were in an environment a moral woman would not find herself in’, Hovhannisyan tells OC Media.

Colonel Nelli Duryan from the police’s General Criminal Intelligence Agency agrees with this view.

‘It comes from our women’s mentality. It’s very uncomfortable for them to sit and describe the violence that has been inflicted on them. That is why when we receive such applications, specialists who have received special training are assigned to the cases. During the interrogation, there are a maximum of two employees in the room so the victim doesn’t feel under pressure’, Duryan told OC Media.

According to her, in recent years, women have become more confident in going to the police. Duryan added that a specialised room with a one-way mirror will soon be opened in one Yerevan police station, which will allow a woman to be present with only one person in the room, while colleagues on the other side of the mirror would be able to follow.

‘I did not follow Armenian customs’

‘I fell in love and got married. Life was wonderful. My husband loved me like crazy, he fulfilled my every wish instantly. I didn’t know what the word “no” meant. When I was pregnant, he treated me like a queen. In short, my life was like a fairy tale. Then it turned into hell’, says Lilit (not her real name).

The fairytale lasted until their child was born. After this, she says her husband changed. A few days after their child was born, as Lilit was breastfeeding, her husband approached her, put the baby on the bed, and they had ‘passionate sex’. This repeated several times, and at first it was pleasant for Lilit.

‘Not long afterwards, however, I noticed changes in his behaviour: he forced me to do things in bed that were unpleasant and painful for me, and if I resisted, he would tie me up and…’ Lilit says she has been subjected to sexual violence from her husband for about six months. She hasn’t said anything to her family, because she did not feel comfortable talking about her intimate problems.

At first, she wanted to preserve the family, and so she asked her husband to visit a sexologist and a psychologist. But he refused.

‘I’m alive today because I did not follow the Armenian custom, was not afraid to bear the label of a “divorced woman”, and applied for divorce. I didn’t report it to the police. At the time, I didn’t want people to know the story of my life’, Lilit says.

Financially secure, Lilit was able to leave with her baby and rent a house. She says her ex-husband has made several attempts to restore the relationship, but she has refused. Lilit says she’s sure her husband is addicted to sexual violence, and is sure he rapes his current wife as well.

‘I knew that girl distantly’, Lilit explains, ‘she was a plump, pretty girl, who came to the city from the village. After their wedding, I saw her a couple of times in the street. She’s become terribly thin, she walks with a slouch, and her neck is always covered. When I was married, my neck was also always covered, because he held it with his thick fingers and pressed against it, he wanted to choke me. He said: “I dream of having sex with a corpse” ’.

Changing laws on domestic violence

Last September, the Ministry of Justice submitted a draft law ‘on prevention of domestic violence and protection of victims of domestic violence’ for discussion. The law was designed to set a legal basis for preventing domestic violence, protecting victims of domestic violence, and making justice accessible to them, since none of this was regulated by existing legislation.

According to activists from the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, adopting the law could have helped curb domestic violence in Armenia. But not everyone was in favour the law. A number of MPs and political and public figures began to protest against it. Some claimed the law was ‘imposed by the European Union’ on Armenia, and was ‘aimed at destroying families and snatching children from their parents’.

After intense debate, in December 2017, an amended version was adopted, titled ‘On Prevention of Domestic Violence, Protection of Persons Subjected to Violence in the Family, and the Restoration of Solidarity in the Family’.

Many of the activists who supported the original draft objected to the modified version, claiming that the whole philosophy of the law had changed.

Activist from the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women say that both the change in the name, and some of the concepts found within it are problematic. They point out that the term ‘domestic violence’ has been removed both from the name of the law, and from its text, having been replaced with the term ‘violence in the family’, which they say is more ambiguous from a legal point of view.

In the adopted law, the term ‘to cause physical pain’ has been removed and instead replaced with ‘to cause physical suffering intentionally’. The term ‘physical suffering’ is not defined in Armenia’s Criminal Code.

‘ “Causing physical pain” to a family member is not included in the current definition of physical violence, thus some victims will have no protection from with this law. That is, if a woman has been subjected to violence, has been physically hurt, but the traces of the offence or damage to the body are not apparent, it is no longer considered a punishable offence’, Zara Hovhannisyan told OC Media.

She says that while the original version of the law concerned the protection of victims of violence, the new law has been reframed to be about ‘supporting the family’.

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