The issue of domestic violence, long a taboo topic in Armenia, is generating lots of public debate these days. The catalyst for discussion is a shocking criminal case, in which a 20-year-old mother of a toddler was, according to witnesses, abused to death by her husband.
Social networks in Armenia have been buzzing about the case since October 1, when 20-year-old Zaruhi Petrosyan died after suffering a series of heavy blows that caused a brain hemorrhage and left her with a broken fingers and bruises all over her body. Shortly before collapsing, Petrosyan reported that she had suffered the injuries in a fall. Her neighbors and her sister, however, asserted that Petrosyan had been abused by her relatives at her home in Masis, a town in the Armavir Region, not far from the capital Yerevan.
The victim’s sister, Hasmik Petrosyan, alleged that her sister’s husband and mother-in-law routinely abused her, and that she often had extensive bruising on her body. She wanted to escape the abuse, but because she was an orphan, she did not have a strong support network to turn to for help, Hasmik Petrosyan maintained. “If there was a law, and the police were more attentive toward such cases, my sister might be alive today,” she said.
Based on witness accounts, authorities took Petrosyan’s 30-year-old husband, Yanis Sarkisov, into custody and charged him with inflicting bodily harm under Article 112 of the Armenian Criminal Code. No trial date has been set. He faces up to 10 years in prison, if convicted. Petrosyan’s mother-in-law is also under investigation in the abuse case, but no charges as yet have been brought against her.
According to Hasmik’s public account, about a year before her death, Zaruhi left her husband, and lived for a few weeks with her sister. But Sarkisov reportedly threatened to kill both women, along with Hasmik’s family members. Zaruhi thus felt compelled to return to her husband in order not to put her sister’s family at risk.
Rights groups are hoping that the Petrosyan case becomes a landmark in their efforts to implement legal safeguards against domestic violence. In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Tigran Sargsian that bore about 3,000 signatures, activists called on government leaders and legislators to address the issue quickly. “Our silence confirms that such cases are nothing extraordinary in Armenian society and allows them to be repeated,” the letter stated.
Susanna Vardanian, the head of the Women’s Rights Center, a Yerevan non-governmental organization, contended that the lack of legal protections played a big role in Petrosyan’s death. “Zaruhi had turned to the police twice, but they [authorities] only had her husband sign a promise not to beat her again; but how can that be a means of prevention!” Vardanian said.
Results from a survey of 1,000 Armenian women conducted in 2008 by the rights group Amnesty International showed that women in roughly three out of 10 families suffered from physical abuse and about two-thirds experienced mental duress. Laurence Broers, an Amnesty International expert on Armenian affairs, said that the problems could be more severe than indicated by the survey data, given the reluctance of many women to disclose instances of abuse.
“Women maintain silence, and the imposer of violence continues his abuse; and the victims of violence continue silently enduring the pain. Armenian society suffers from that: the number of children with mental problems keeps growing,” Broers said.
Another survey of 2,763 women, conducted in 2010 and sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund, showed that those who suffered from abuse tended to keep quiet about it: only 15 percent of those who acknowledged suffering from abuse were willing to discuss it. Another aspect of the survey involved participants being shown two images – one of a smiling face, the other of a crying face – and being asked which face they identified with more: about 70 percent of the participants selected the crying face.
“If before the organizations fighting against domestic violence were accused of breaking up families, now both the public and many politicians admit that the problem exists, and it has to be dealt with,” says Vardanian.
Armine Tanashian, a department head at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs who handles women’s issues, insisted the state is taking steps to address domestic violence. “The government approved a Gender Policy Concept within the framework of which an inter-departmental commission has been set up to develop a four-year national gender quality program. This is great progress and the law on violence will eventually be adopted as a result,” Tanashian told EurasiaNet.org.
Last year, the government had planned to allocate money from the state budget on building shelters, however the budget was cut because of the economic crisis and, as Tanashian explained, the draft budget for 2011 does not include it either.
If a few years ago many MPs were unconvinced that domestic violence was a problem in Armenia, that is no longer the case. “This [Petrosyan] case has made us acutely aware of the problem, and so now many realize that the issue should have been tended to before,” opposition Heritage Party MP Zaruhi Postanjian told EurasiaNet.org. “A law must be adopted and urgent steps should be taken to fight against these problems, which do not bring honor to our families.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.