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[Voice from Armenia] From a survivor of sexual violence to human rights advocate

5 May 2017
'I realized that defending my rights was only in my own hands'./ Lucy Abdel Ahad (Daphne)

Daphne is a project from Armenia about women who have overcome hardships and challenges. Women who despite the blows of fate, despite deprivation and despair, were able to withstand their difficulties and move forward. Below is Lucy Abdel Ahad’s story.

‘I was completely petrified, as if I were dead and my soul had left my body. I felt so bad that I was thinking about committing suicide by jumping out of the window. I felt nothing at that moment; I was broken inside, there was no future’, recalls Lucy Abdel Ahad.

Born and raised in Beirut, Lucy moved to Armenia at the age of 20, where she was sexually abused by her professor. She was shocked: what had happened was something incomprehensible and inexplicable. Her life turned into a still picture, and it felt like she was never going to move on.

‘It was a terrible trauma for me. I never thought that someone who treated me like a father and knew me from childhood was capable of doing this. I just could not understand why he did this to me’, says Lucy.

Her abuser is a well-known composer who taught her private violin lessons from early childhood, when she still lived in Beirut. Lucy started playing the violin at the age of 8. As soon as she finished school, her love for music and her hard work helped her successfully pass entrance exams to the Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory, where she started studying under a state-funded education program.

‘The incident took place at our house, in Yerevan. I was a first-year student at the Conservatory, and the composer had promised to come to our place to help me prepare for the exams. I trusted and had so much respect for him that I never thought he would be capable of committing such an act. Yet, he sexually assaulted me on the very first day of his visit’, she recalls, admitting that after the incident, she started to hate playing the violin. Before that, music had a central role in her life: she used to play the violin 4–8 hours a day.

‘But then I was disgusted at the very sight of the violin. Whenever I picked up the instrument to start playing, I remembered that person, what he had done. I relived that terrible experience over and over again and could not concentrate on training. Everything tumbled down, shattered to pieces within just one day…’

The despair and frustration was so overwhelming that Lucy even stopped attending classes at the Conservatory.

‘I lived in pain every single day and kept thinking about suicide all the time. I thought I was nothing. I didn’t want to live. To me, life had lost all sense and meaning… I had sleepless nights, was emotionally stressed and saw nightmares. I was desperate and all alone’, she continued.

Despite psychological stress and difficulties, Lucy decided to speak out about the incident at the Conservatory, but she received no support there. Her friends and relatives urged her to turn a blind eye on what had happened, and avoid speaking about the sexual abuse she had been subjected to. Little by little, Lucy found herself in isolation and started to blame herself for what had happened. Her family, her mother and two sisters who still lived in Beirut, had no idea about the incident.

‘At the Conservatory, they condemned what had happened, but said they could help me with nothing. Then I realized that they could have at least instructed me to go to the police, but they failed to do even that. One of my relatives even told me that 90 percent of men were just like my abuser, and that it was senseless to raise the issue, because one day I was going to get married, start a family, so I’d better keep all those things to myself and hold my tongue’, she went on.

Lucy gave up studying and severed ties with music, living in isolation. After a while, a friend advised her to apply for help from a women’s rights organisation.

‘I was crying all the time. I was too emotional. When they heard my story at the Women’s Resource Centre, they said they would help me and that I needed to visit their center again, but I failed to go there the next day. Perhaps, I wasn’t ready yet, I didn’t find enough strength inside me for that. I had built walls inside myself trying to avoid remembering or speaking about what had happened. Moreover, I had to witness how successful my abuser was; how he won awards, continued teaching at the Conservatory and lived a normal life. This made me believe that I was unable to change anything. I decided to run away from that reality and never speak about it again, but I did not realise to what extent that incident had harmed me’, says Lucy.

It took her seven years to find the strength to overcome her fears and the psychological barriers that subconsciously prompted her to fight against sexual violence and begin advocating for women's rights.

‘Now I understand how interconnected all these things are. When I became a victim of sexual violence, the voice inside me called for help and needed someone to protect my rights. But then I figured out that the protection of my rights was in my own hands, that is why I chose to study law after so many years’, she added.

At first, she decided to enter the Law Department at her University.

‘My case prompted me to take an interest in human rights and in women’s rights particularly’.

To pay for her education, Lucy went to work in the service sector as a manager.

In 2015, she went to the Women’s Resource Centre again, this time with a clear determination to change her life. Here she discovered the brighter side of her life: aside from receiving psychological assistance, she also participated in training sessions on women’s rights.  

‘I started to feel secure, to be the person I really was, with all my emotions, my inner world, and there was no one to tell me that I was wrong, that I had to be quiet, hold my tongue and never speak out. I realised that no matter how our rights are violated, we have to fight, we have to speak out’, says Lucy.

Today, she supports women subjected to violence and discrimination and works to raise their awareness of their rights. A year ago, Lucy started working at the Women's Resource Centre, where she travels to regions and organises workshops for women.   

‘I often speak about sexual violence, sharing my experience and telling my story. There have been moments when other victims of violence, seeing that I was not ashamed to speak boldly about what had happened to me, spoke out too and told their own stories. Many of them followed my recommendations and sought psychological support which later helped them overcome all their difficulties’, says Lucy, adding that the issue of sexual abuse is still largely taboo within Armenian society, which tends to blame the victim rather than the offender.

‘When I started traveling to the regions to share my story with others, I realised that many of them had no idea about sexual abuse, some were even convinced that there was no sexual violence in Armenia at all. Men [participants of workshops] were interested if I still wanted to get married after what had happened, how I was going to get married at all, and why I kept sharing my story. Women were more interested in the emotional side of the problem and wondered how I had coped with the situation and finally made it through.’

Lucy underlines that our society has a prejudiced and discriminatory attitude towards victims of sexual violence, but she still raises the issue and is willing to help other women who have become victims of sexual abuse.

She believes that the fight against violation of women's rights and sexual violence will be a lifelong struggle for her.

‘Women need to know that in reality they are very strong. Falling victim to sexual abuse is a terrible thing, but the very fact that you have survived through it, wake up and open your eyes every morning, speaks for itself; you have overcome the worst thing, you are coping with the problem’, says Lucy, who dreams of founding her own centre where women will receive assistance, as well as become more educated and aware of their rights.

The article is a partner post written by Lilit Arakelyan that first appeared on the website DAPHNE.

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