Making Strides for Social Justice: Combating Domestic Violence in Armenia
In this week between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration, I’ve been thinking a lot about social justice. For a while, many Americans have been despairing about the human rights abuses and prejudice rampant in our society. And in Armenia, a country with very different problems, I have heard similar complaints: a government that does not stand up for the people’s rights and ideas, and no way to change it. But in The U.S. we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy of resistance despite monumental odds, so I wanted to reflect on a major success in the realm of social justice.
On December 9, Armenia’s parliament passed a new law aimed at combating domestic violence. This was a major step, because although a 2011 survey found that 60% of women in Armenia reported experiencing domestic violence, it was not legally considered a crime. Domestic violence has long been an issue in Armenia, but it began to be discussed publicly after the murder of 20 year old Zaruhi Petrosyan by her husband and mother-in-law in 2010. This case was widely publicized and prompted the formation of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, a group of NGOs that joined to provide support for domestic violence victims and advocate for political and social measures to solve the problem.
In 2016 we visited the Women’s Support Center or WSC, one of the major NGOs that advocated for the new law, and met the director Maro Matosian, as well as Ani Jilozian, a researcher and writer for the organization. Maro told us about the many services the organization provides, including serving as a shelter for victims of domestic violence, doing political advocacy, conducting research, organizing trainings for law enforcement, and providing victims of domestic violence with the resources to support themselves through entrepreneurship.
“It’s very difficult to disseminate information,” Maro told us. “There’s a very strong conservative movement in the society. The soap operas promote violence, and when the media covers domestic violence they often do so in the wrong way, releasing confidential information about the victims and asking them why they didn’t leave.”
Maro and the WSC, however, are dedicated to raising awareness, presenting facts and evidence to the government and encouraging women to raise their voices in society. She told us about a recent move that the government made to remove maternity leave for women. Many women protested and the government retracted the decision, which was encouraging as it showed women that their voices actually could make an impact.
“In Armenia, there’s a burgeoning women’s movement,” Ani told us. “Not like the large movement in the U.S. in the ‘70s, but more small scale.”
Armenian women have overtaken men as a percentage of the population in universities, but they are still less likely to get Ph.D’s. Women are often encouraged to become housewives after getting their degree.
“You’re expected to be a mother first,” said Ani. “All else is secondary.”
It’s been very difficult for organizations like the Women’s Support Center to break through mindsets and patterns that are deeply entrenched in society, but Ani told us that they have seen advances. She told us about a group of women in Syunik province who noticed that the front seats in the Marshrutkas (regional mini-buses) were always taken by men. They started sitting in those seats in protest, and over time it became acceptable in their community.
From small strides like this, to major improvements like the new domestic violence law, the women’s movement is going forward. The new law is no panacea, and has major flaws such as insisting on reconciliation, which can be harmful for the victim as there is a power imbalance in abusive relationships, but it is an important first step. It requires law enforcement to stop life-threatening domestic violence, allows abusive spouses to be removed from the home, and most importantly, authoritatively recognizes domestic violence as a problem that must be solved. It was a major effort of organizations, women, and activists in Armenia, the diaspora, and international organizations, and reminds us of the importance of everyone who raised their voice to make this happen. So I encourage us all to cheer on the women’s movement in Armenia, but also to appreciate the small and large social justice victories around us, and let those inspire us to keep fighting.
For more information about the Women’s Support Center http://www.womensupportcenter.org
For more information about the new law https://armenianweekly.com/2017/12/08/armenia-adopts-law-domestic-violence-last/