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 beat 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.
When she was pregnant, Armine’s life became relatively calmer. 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. Armine got pregnant four times, and had abortions each time. She did not have the 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.
Shamed into silence
Spousal rape and sexual violence affects many women in Armenia. 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 left with little protection.
Like many victims of abuse, Armine did not go to the police because she is sure nothing would come of it. She is also afraid that her husband might seek revenge should she go to the police.
“People will say: ‘how is it that you could not (manage to) live even with two different men? You are guilty. You are immoral,'” Armine says.
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.
But this does not necessarily mean sexual violence itself is decreasing. Zara Hovhannisyan, an activist from the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, says reluctance to file complaints with police can be explained by women’s fear of being shamed as a result of sexual violence, a “taboo” topic in Armenia.
‘I did not follow Armenian customs’
Lilit's fairytale relationship lasted until her first child was born.
“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).
After her baby's birth, she says, her husband changed. A few days later as Lilit was breastfeeding, her husband approached her, put the baby on the bed, and they had ‘passionate sex’. This was repeated several times. At first it was pleasant for Lilit.
“Not long after, 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.”
This sexual violence continued for about six months. She has not said anything to her family, because she does not feel comfortable talking about her intimate problems.
At first, she wanted to preserve the family's relationship, 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. Lilit believes her husband is addicted to sexual violence, and feels 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 into it — he wanted to choke me.”
He told me: “I dream of having sex with a corpse.”
Changing laws on domestic violence
In September 2017, 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 to provide the legal basis for preventing domestic violence, protecting victims of domestic violence, and making justice accessible, since none of this was regulated by existing legislation.
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, an amended version was adopted in December 2017, titled ‘On Prevention of Domestic Violence, Protection of Persons Subjected to Violence in the Family, and the Restoration of Solidarity in the Family’.
Activists 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.
As a result “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,” Hovhannisyan of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women told OC Media.