Domestic violence has long been a taboo subject in Armenian circles. But when 20-year-old mother Zaruhi Petrosyan was brutally beaten to death by her husband and mother-in-law last October, the case mobilized individuals and organizations in confronting this issue which affects over a quarter of women in Armenia.
The awakening gave way to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women in Armenia, a seven member organization that has been following Petrosyan's case and working to make changes to the criminal code about domestic violence. Along with the Women's Resource Center, Society Without Violence, PINK Armenia, Zangakadun, Women's Rights Center, The Tufenkian Foundation in partnership with the Armenian International Women's Association and USAID the Women's Support Center which now seeks to raise new funds to open a shelter for abused women in Armenia.
We spoke to Tufenkian's Country Director, Mary Matosian in September about the challenges and hopes for the project.
Global Voices (GV): What kind of work has your organization done in the scope of domestic violence in Armenia thus far?
Mary Matosian (MM): We have created posters and fliers and distributed them. This has not been very easy because we would like to put them in store windows, and some have accepted and some have not. We ran our hotline number [on television] and people called us from all over Armenia. We teach positive parenting, many of these women continue to be physically violent to their children, so the children become perpetrators of violence. Many of these women didn't even know this was a problem because this is what they’ve seen in their families and they think this is the norm. Together with British Embassy, we also ran a training program for journalists, speaking to them about what exactly domestic violence is, and how to interview victims of violence.
GV: How do you change attitudes about domestic violence in Armenia?
MM: We need to educate people at all levels, government officials, teachers, doctors. For example we did training with teachers. They were women, and very adamant about not wanting to talk about this subject, and very resistant. Women themselves are not ready to think towards their own good. International organizations play a major role in this, and the diaspora too. Because on a local level as much as we scream and yell, nothing happens. When there's outside pressure they start to react. We have to start changing legislation. Laws are very important for the protection of victims and punishment of abusers.
GV: Why is this an important enough issue for those who are not Armenian to care about?
MM: Domestic violence is an international issue. We get grants from organizations that have no presence in Armenia. The solidarity of women around the world to promote women issues and to protect women is something universal, without borders. Through the internet now, we are so connected with each other and we can present experiences to Armenians and mention how are things in Africa and South America and other parts of the world, and where they have dealt with the issues – and that in itself creates a parallel for them to be inspired.
GV: What about critics who will point out that men get abused too. Do you have programs available for male victims of domestic violence?
MM: We have indeed two men in the program who were abused as well. We had one particular family where all members of the family were hitting each other. We cannot address everything – there's all sorts of violence – you need to focus on something, but there are other cases and they should be addressed.
GV: What does the future hold for curbing domestic violence in Armenia?
MM: If we go at this pace, I think the future is very bright. Because if we can continue to be well-organized and continue to have funding and be active the way we are now, more and more information will be spread around. Even though we have had good results in the past few years, we are still in the nascent stages of this struggle. For example, the word ‘feminism’ for some reason has bad connotations in Armenia. We still have to explain to people, to women, what women's rights are. Women are not even aware that they have problems. We are still in the very early stages.
Other organizations in the country are also establishing infrastructure for domestic violence victims. In July, the non-profit charity Paros “Lighthouse” opened a new shelter and women's center near Etchmiadzin, where they house expecting mothers and women with children up to 2 years old who have been abused and have no where to go. The center has received three women so far, who come for support for milk, clothing, diapers and therapy. According to founder Seta Ghazarian, it has capacity for up to 16 women.