Violence and its Victims in Armenia: Inside the Home and in the Public Sphere

by PFA Policy Forum Armenia on Saturday, October 23, 2010 at 1:19pm

Zaruhi Petrosyan, the orphaned 20-year old mother of two from Massis, Armenia, was tortured and murdered by her husband and mother-in-law. Sadly, Zaruhi was not and most likely will not be the only victim of domestic violence in Armenia. With her death however, she has attained a tragic ‘fame’ to become the most well known Armenian victim of domestic abuse. The facts and details of the abuse and the failures of law enforcement officials to intervene make for sad reading and are evidence of how violence against women, while not condoned, is often ignored or silently excused in Armenia. Yet the violence perpetrated against Zaruhi, the impunity of the two degenerates who tortured her, the incompetence and indifference of the law enforcement officials who failed to assist her, and the subsequent international outcry and indignation speak are indicative of broader socio-economic and political trends in Armenia that have emerged in recent years. Economic and political forms of violence are sadly a part of Armenian life today and most instances of violence and abuse go unreported for the same reasons as those in Zaruhi’s case:  (1) police indifference, incompetence, and corruption;  (2) the feelings of  impunity of the perpetrators;  and (3)  societal attitudes, which accept or tacitly condone acts of violence.  Just in the past few weeks we have also witnessed, via YouTube and Facebook, violence perpetrated against Armenian army conscripts and students.  Hence violence in the home is mirrored by acts of violence within society at large.

Undoubtedly, Zaruhi’s death would hardly have raised such a stir had it not been for the brave actions of the News.am journalist Gagik Shamsyan and of course Zaruhi’s sister Hasmik and Hasmik’s mother in law who recorded a video detailing the abuse and lack of police response. When posted, the YouTube video went viral among Armenian communities and sparked civil society action in Armenia, discussion in the Armenian blogosphere, and an international petition drive aimed at passing domestic violence legislation in Armenia. The topic was also picked up among Armenian Facebook users and was broadcast in local Armenian language television programmes in Los Angeles. The developments have drawn unprecedented focus on domestic violence in Armenia. But they are hardly enough; much more needs to be done.

The problem of domestic violence exists in every country in the world. While passage of the domestic violence legislation in Armenia will be an important first step in addressing the problem, it is only that, a first step. A law on the books does not mean that it will change people’s behaviours or even provide women with real and practical solutions. So Armenia could have the best laws in the world, but if law enforcement officials and corrupt judges do not follow or correctly implement those laws then of what use are those brilliantly crafted laws? It is no secret that corruption is ubiquitous in the law enforcement and judicial systems in Armenia. Corruption, the absence of respect for the rule of law, and a lack of good governance are at the core of many of the political and economic problems facing Armenia today. Moreover, societal attitudes that ignore, justify, or minimize the impact of violence (i.e., it happens; she was asking for it; it was only a slap, etc.) should be challenged and changed.  In the case of domestic violence, it will also be important to strengthen safety nets and support networks for victims of abuse so that they do not remain in horribly abusive relationships due to economic dependence.

If we take Zaruhi’s case as mirroring the broader acts of violence within Armenian society today, we can see how political and economic elites flout the law on a regular basis and operate with a similar feeling of impunity. For that reason, if violence—all forms of it—is to be addressed and curtailed in Armenia, far-reaching steps must be taken to address the endemic corruption and encourage respect for the rule of law. This requires a fundamental shift in societal attitudes so that violence and corruption are not tolerated. We can see this happening with the outcry which followed the recent army deaths and abuse scandals as well as Zaruhi’s case. But much remains to be done to change people’s attitudes and until then, the passage of the domestic violence legislation is the way forward.

Dr. Armine Ishkanian
Department of Social Policy
London School of Economics
and
Senior Fellow
Policy Forum Armenia

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