By Ani Paitjan
In recent weeks, there have been discussions on social media about rape and sexual violence in Armenia. Critics say rape culture does not exist in Armenia and this is a “western” “feminist” conspiracy. Others, including members of parliament, have been vocal in denouncing sexual violence and the culture of silence.
An article from Armenia-based Hetq media outlet triggered the online debates. Eva, a painter from Czech Republic who was a volunteer in Armenia’s northern city of Vanadzor, talked about her scarring experience in the nearby village of Gugark. The young woman narrowly escaped rape by a villager. Eva decided not to remain silent. She lodged complaints against her aggressor and told her story to Hetq.
Eva said that other villagers did not answer her cries for help and they pressured her to withdraw the complaint against the aggressor because “he is a husband and a father.”
Lucy Kocharyan, an activist and a former journalist, quickly denounced the “law of silence” on harassment and rape against women in Armenia. She initiated #բռնության_ձայնը, meaning ‘the voice of violence,’ a hashtag through which she shares the stories of women who have been victims of rape and/or violence.
One woman wrote to her and told her that when she was ten years old, she wasraped by a family acquaintance who was 40 years old. She says never shared her story with anyone and is now unable to have healthy relationships with men,adding, “sometimes I wish that I were dead.”
On her Facebook page, Kocharyan wrote that her inbox has been exploding with stories of women’s experiences of rape, harassment and violence since the creation of the hashtag
In an interview with CivilNet, Kocharyan stated that she also gets hate messages, mocking her and victims of violence.
“To those who have a skeptical behaviour, those who mock or make fun of people, say that those girls have a very bright imagination or they say I too have a bright imagination, I have something to tell them: it is precisely because of you that those women are victims of various harassment, of different sort of violences, of various indecent suggestions, of many violent experience and to rape and still, they remain silent during months, years,” said Kocharyan.
According to Armenia’s Criminal Code, Article 138, “Rape, sexual intercourse of a man with a woman against her will, using violence against the latter or some other person, with threat thereof, or taking advantage of the woman’s helpless situation, is punished with imprisonment for the term of three to six years.”
However, the attitudes of Armenian society can be lenient towards domestic and sexual violence. A 2016 report led by the United Nations for Population Fund Armenia (UNFPA) reported that 36 percent of the respondents in Armenia believe that women should tolerate violence for the sake of family unity. Within those 36 percent, 45 percent were men and 28 percent women.
In some cases, even the authorities turn a blind eye. Armenian police reported that the body of a murdered woman had been brought to Masis Medical Centre, on May 9.
In another case, a women named Armine experience sexual harassment and physical violence from her husband. When she finally divorced him, he continuously showed up at her aunt’s house.
“I called the police four or five times… They would come, take him away, then let him go after five minutes. One time I wrote a complaint to the police. The officer said, ‘We can’t do anything. We can’t detain him. There is no law,’” Armine said.
A new domestic violence law was instituted in Armenia in January 2018, after much debate and resistance. The law introduced criminal and administrative liability for those found guilty of domestic violence. It provides a direct legal basis for police intervention in instances of violence.
Some political figures have responded to Kocharyan initiative of the hashtag. On his Facebook page, parliament deputy Sargis Khandanyan wrote that he wished it was not the case but “these stories are real and happen near us, in our society, within or close and far family.”
Khandanyan added that denouncing and condemning sexual and domestic violence is not enough. It is up to the law, to the educational system to lead the fight.
“Our legislative base is not perfect in this issue, and we, legislators, have to clarify the legal regulations with the government. The sensitivity of law enforcement and justice agencies in these matters is far from perfect. Most importantly, the educational system still pays very little attention to this issue. ” wrote Khandanyan.