A draft law on domestic violence that was to specifically deal with violence within the home was turned away by the Armenian government on Jan. 21. Instead of approving the bill, the government recommended that other existing laws be amended to include clauses that would help the courts deal with cases of domestic violence. Whether the government has outright rejected the bill is unclear.
According to the Women’s Resource Center, a non-profit organization that is closely following the issue, “the government has based its rejection of the bill on the fact that the entire Armenian legislative framework is undergoing a number of changes. Changes being made in the criminal and criminal procedure codes, as well as in the code of administrative offenses, would cause a number of problems in implementing the overruled bill. For this reason and with the agreement of the government, there will be no separate Domestic Violence Statute Book.”
The chairperson of the Women’s Resource Center in Yerevan (WRCA), Lara Aharonian, told the Armenian Weekly that following internal deliberations, the bill was rejected—though it has not been made public yet. The decision shows that “the government is still not aware that domestic violence is a serious issue in Armenia and that we still don’t have a genuine political will to advance women’s rights and develop adequate policies to ensure gender equality in the country. This is a direct consequence of the lack of women’s political presence and, in addition, [it shows] that women’s realities, concerns, and needs are not taken into consideration in policies,” she told the Weekly.
Aharonian believes that amendments to other laws will be less effective than a separate law on domestic violence because they will, in effect, fail to acknowledge domestic violence as “a real problem,” and will fail to invest financial and human resources— to counter it on a national level. “Armenia is trying to conform to international conventions and declaring in many international reports that they support women’s rights and gender equality, but they need to put their money where their mouth is,” said Aharonian. “Domestic violence legislation also includes a set of services and resources that need to be available for survivors, and money should be allocated for that, which is something that this government is not ready to do yet.”
For Aharonian, the bill on domestic violence is crucial as it would recognize the existence of the problem in the country, and criminalize it unambiguously. The law would bring with it adequate protection mechanisms for the victims, including restraining orders; reform of the police force and the judicial sector to effectively deal with cases of domestic violence; and a change to the “it’s a private issue” mentality, explained Aharonian. “What the government is now suggesting is just a way of watering it down. It’s not as efficient as a separate legislation.”
The Women’s Rights Center of Yerevan drafted the law and in 2009 submitted it to the Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. In 2011, the ministry put together an inter-sectorial working group to deal with the draft bill. The ministry publicized the bill in November 2012, and subsequently submitted it to the government for approval. In 2010, various non-governmental organizations came together to form the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women to raise awareness of the issue and to pressure authorities to adopt the bill. The coalition is comprised of the Women’s Resource Center, the Women’s Rights Center, Society Without Violence, PINK Armenia, the Women’s Support Center, Zangakatun, and the Sexual Assault Crisis Center. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) also supported the initiative.
No rejection yet, says ombudsman’s office
The Armenian Weekly reached out to the office of Armenia’s Ombudsman Karen Andreasyan, for clarification on the status of the bill. “The draft law on domestic violence has not been rejected. It is still being analyzed by the Ministry of Justice, [which] is part of the routine,” Naira Karmirshalyan, head of public relations department of the ombudsman’s office, told the Armenian Weekly. “It is difficult to give a persuasive answer [as to] why it is taking this long for the draft law to pass.”
In November 2012, Andreasyan submitted a list of recommendations on the draft law to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The proposed amendments dealt with clauses on the interrogation of juveniles, requiring them to be questioned in the presence of a legal representative and a police officer specializing in juvenile affairs or a psychologist. Andreasyan also recommended that victim help hotlines operate around-the-clock; and for officials to investigate cases immediately following victim complaints.
According to Karmirshalyan, the recommendations made were all “important and necessary,” and they would bring the bill closer to reflecting “the best international practice.”
Karmirshalyan expressed her reservations about the slow-moving process. “It is disturbing that immediate steps are not being taken by the government, because prime facie the draft law seems complete,” she told the Weekly, but reiterated that “the final decision on its acceptance or rejection has not been made.”
“Unfortunately domestic violence is a phenomenon that occurs all over the world, in every country and in every society. It is our position that the draft law on domestic violence is a necessity for our society, the absence of which created a legal gap. In such cases, the gap becomes an obstacle for preventing these disturbing actions,” she said. “The law would also create the needed mechanism that would make an attempt in eliminating the latent nature of this phenomenon in Armenian society. It is of paramount importance, [as] the law would also give the necessary guarantees—most importantly, protection and social safeguards to the victims of domestic violence.”
By working towards a domestic violence law in 2012, the government—and specifically the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs—has illustrated that it is listening and responding to the calls by international organizations that have raised the issue of the lack of a domestic violence bill in their reports, urging the Armenian government to take immediate steps, said Karmirshalyan.
“However, the timing of actions being taken is becoming an issue,” she added, referring to the slow process. If the ombudsman’s office judges that the delays in passing a bill are unjustified, then they are prepared to nudge the appropriate bodies. “We would send a letter to the government in order to learn the reasoning and/or justifications behind [the delay]… If necessary, we would recommend that the government accelerate the process of analyzing and reaching a decision regarding the draft law.”
Aharonian, too, will be watching closely. “In the following weeks we will have meetings with the Coalition Against Violence and the gender theme group that includes different non-governmental organizations, ministries, and international organizations to discuss the next steps,” she told the Weekly.
If approved by the government, the draft law would have been submitted to the National Assembly to be reviewed and voted on. “It did not pass the first step. Now we need to review and strategize what to do next. Do we accept what the government is proposing, or do we lobby—all of us together—for a separate law?” added Aharonian.
Currently, the courts deal with domestic violence the same way they deal with violence in general, which, according to Aharonian, “makes the court cases even more challenging, especially for women and children.” Recently, attorney Nona Galstyan, representing domestic violence victim Mariam Gevorgyan, expressed similar concerns over the lack of a domestic violence law. “The absence of a law means that female victims of domestic violence are often left defenseless. The police will not launch a criminal case unless serious injury or death has taken place,” she was quoted by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) as saying.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is not uncommon for authorities to either dismiss cases of domestic violence, considering them private matters, or to avoid dealing with them with the required urgency. That was the case with 20-year-old Zaruhi Petrosyan, who died after severe beatings by her husband and, allegedly, her mother-in-law. According to statements made by the victim’s sister, Zaruhi had gone to the police twice before, which resulted in a warning for the husband, Yanis Sarkisov. The proposed domestic violence bill would provide victims like Zaruhi with vital resources. For instance, the law would require that the abuser be removed from the home; and if the victim did not feel safe at home, she would have the option of going to a government-funded women’s shelter. Currently, there are only two shelters operating in Armenia, and they are at times forced to turn victims away, for lack of space and resources.
Zaruhi’s death in 2010 led to widespread public outrage, pushing that most taboo issue out into the national arena. It left no room for denial that domestic violence exists in Armenia, and that occasionally it claims lives. Zaruhi’s story reverberated throughout various Armenian communities worldwide. Activists worked hard to raise awareness of the issue and pressed the government for a national law against domestic violence; the diaspora echoed those calls, with petitions circulating in support of such a law. In the meantime, while policy-makers deliberate on whether to pass the draft law, other brutal cases of domestic violence continue to take place. Unfortunately, Zaruhi was not the last victim whose life was cut short due to domestic violence. In July 2012, Anahit Babayan was beaten to death with a concrete slab and a wooden bar by her husband of 30 years. For activists like Aharonian, the time for real action is long overdue.