(Yerevan) – The lives and well-being of women and children in Armenia who have survived domestic violence are in jeopardy because of the Armenian government’s failure to ensure their protection, Human Rights Watch said today. In December 2017, Armenia’s parliament passed a law on violence in the family, but women and children remain at risk until the government comprehensively changes how police respond to complaints of violence and provides accessible, quality services for survivors.
Human Rights Watch spoke with 12 survivors of severe domestic abuse in Armenia. The women said their husbands or male partners punched and kicked them, raped them, struck them with furniture and other objects, confined them in their homes, stalked them, and threatened or attempted to kill them with knives or other sharp objects. Five women said the attacks against them continued during pregnancy; three said they had miscarriages after their husbands beat them.
“Armenian authorities have failed to protect women and others from domestic violence, putting women’s and children’s health and lives in jeopardy,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new law is one important step, but until authorities take reports of domestic violence seriously and ensure that women and children get the legal, medical, and social help they need, the danger remains.”
Those interviewed said that when they reported abuse to police or other authorities, the authorities did nothing to prevent further violence, investigate cases, or hold the attackers accountable. In some cases, the authorities encouraged women to drop complaints and reconcile with their abusers. The authorities did not refer the women for services or assistance.
Armenia’s Coalition to Stop Violence against Women, an alliance of nongovernmental women’s rights organizations, reported that at least four women were killed by their partners or other family members in the first half of 2017, and at least 50 were killed between 2010 and 2017. The Coalition received 5,299 calls about incidents of domestic violence from January through September 2017.
In one case Human Rights Watch documented, Gayane (not her real name), 45, said that her former husband had repeatedly beat her during their eight-year marriage, stalked her after she divorced him, and frequently broke into her house to rob and attack her, most recently in November. “He grabbed me by the hair and threw me on to the sofa,” Gayane said. “He jumped on top of me and put his elbows on my throat, trying to strangle me. I bit him in the arm and he let go, but he dragged me off the sofa, threw me down on the floor, and started to kick me all over, shouting, ‘Die!’”
When Gayane ran to the police in her nightclothes, they said, “Oh, so you came and want to do something about your husband? He beat you? And so? Why did you let him in?” After receiving treatment at the hospital for a sprained wrist and numerous bruises, Gayane returned home to find her former husband asleep in her house with her two sons. Police refused to intervene.
Children witnessed abuse against their mothers, often for many years, and several women said their husbands committed violence against their children. Human Rights Watch also documented other family members, such as in-laws, abused women.
The new law requires police to urgently intervene “when there is a reasonable assumption of an immediate threat of repetition or the continuation of violence” in the family. Urgent measures include police removing the alleged attacker from the home and prohibiting them from approaching or communicating with the victim. Courts can issue six-month protection orders, with two possible three-month extensions.
Many women said they lived with their abusers for years because they had no means of escape. The country has only two domestic violence shelters, both in the capital, Yerevan, run by nongovernmental organizations, each with a capacity for five women and their children. Council of Europe standards call for at least one specialized shelter in every region, and one shelter space per 10,000 people. With a population of approximately 2.9 million, Armenia should have approximately 290 shelter spaces. The new law mandates creating government-run shelters, but does not specify the number of shelters or their capacity.
The law defines domestic violence as “a physical, sexual, psychological, or economic act of violence” between family members, including spouses in unregistered marriages. It is not clear if the law applies to couples who are not in registered or unregistered marriages.
Just before submitting the law to parliament in mid-November, the government revised the law to include “strengthening of traditional values in the family” as a key principle. Authorities also changed the title to add the concept of “restoring harmony in the family.”
The Coalition to Stop Violence against Women expressed concerns that the new law’s principle of “traditional values” could be used to reinforce obsolete and problematic gender roles and stereotypes. Activists also fear an emphasis on “restoring harmony” could be used to pressure women to remain in abusive relationships.
During a December 6 meeting, Armenia’s minister of justice, David Harutyunyan, told Human Rights Watch that the concept of “restoring harmony in the family” recognizes the government’s obligation to not only protect victims, but to provide services to the alleged abuser, such as alcohol or drug treatment. He said that these initiatives would not take priority over protection.
The new law requires authorities to investigate alleged crimes in the family even if the victim withdraws a complaint to the police. It also mandates training for police, prosecutors, judges and others in the criminal justice system on how to respond to complaints and investigate and prosecute cases.
The European Union insisted the government of Armenia pass a domestic violence law as a condition for certain budgetary support. The European Commission also called on Armenia to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. In late December, the government approved the possible signature of the convention, but has not yet done so.
“Women in Armenia need the government to provide meaningful protection from abusive husbands and partners, not to reinforce gender stereotypes about men’s dominance or family roles that can contribute to violence in the first place,” Buchanan said.
Accounts from Domestic Violence Survivors
Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth interviews with 12 survivors of domestic violence in Armenia: 11 in December 2017 and one in May 2016. Human Rights Watch also interviewed women’s rights activists and representatives of organizations providing services to survivors of domestic violence, who described similar accounts of abuse, authorities’ response to domestic violence, and obstacles to accessing services for survivors. Everyone interviewed was informed of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways the information would be used. All provided verbal informed consent. The interviews highlighted survivors’ experiences and the legal and other protection gaps that the government should address, including through the new law on family violence. Where necessary, pseudonyms have been used to protect interviewees’ identities.
From the first weeks of her marriage in 2004, at age 19, Armine’s husband abused her:
After we were married just one or two weeks, he hit me in the face. When he stayed out late, and I asked him where he was, this would set off beatings. When I was seven months pregnant with our first child he beat me, including in my belly. According to the doctor, this injured the baby and he was born with a problem in his spine.
Then my husband started to drink, and it was as if I just made mistake after mistake. He would humiliate me. He would take all the sheets and blankets off the bed and demand that I remake it. He would refuse to eat what I prepared and demand I go out and get something else. I can’t even pronounce the words he would say to me to insult me. They were all the worst words.
Later, he started to use sharp objects. Sometimes he would come home late at night and I would be asleep in my bed with my sons on either side of me. He would jump on top of me and put the knife to my neck and say, “I’ll kill you!”
Armine said her husband broke her rib during one beating, and broke her arm during another:
I was sitting at the table across from him with my youngest son in my arms. My husband got angry and picked up the table and turned it over. I tried to stop the table from crashing onto me, but it broke my right arm. I went to the hospital and got a cast. When they asked at the hospital what had happened, I lied and said I fell.
Armine also said that if she tried to protect herself, her husband would break furniture, throw household objects and smash windows. On one occasion, neighbors called an ambulance, hoping the medics could remove Armine’s husband. Medical workers refused to intervene saying, “He’s not a patient for us, take him to the psychiatric hospital.” They left without calling the police or telling Armine how she could get help.
One night in 2014 after her husband threatened to kill her with a knife and hit her younger son, Armine fled the house with her two children. Her former husband stalked her relentlessly for two years:
He would come to my aunt’s house. He would appear on the street as I took the kids to school. He would swear at me, demand that we get back together. Other times he would stand in front of me on the sidewalk and not let me pass. Or he would grab me by the arm or by my purse, trying to make me go with him.
In 2015, Armine lost her job in a medical center after her then-former husband twice came to her workplace:
I worked a 24-hour shift. He came one night and was drunk. He said ‘I came to see if you are actually working or if you are doing something with some lover. I won’t let you work anywhere. I will slit your throat!’ After that the director came and told me I shouldn’t come to work anymore. He said, ‘It’s not ok for your husband to come here and sort out your family problems.’
The medical center director did not offer Armine any assistance.
She said the police failed to protect her:
After we were divorced, I called the police four or five times when my [former]husband showed up at my aunt’s house. They would come, take him away, then let him go after five minutes. One time I wrote a complaint to the police. The officer said, ‘We can’t do anything. We can’t detain him. There is no law.’ The investigator who received a complaint said that the only possibility was a court process with the outcome being a monetary fine for him. I decided it wasn’t worth it. He didn’t have the money to pay for a fine.
Armine described her ongoing anxiety and fears after more than a decade of abuse. She said, “I haven’t heard from him, and I believe he is not living in Armenia anymore, but I am still scared. I go to work early in the morning, when it is still dark out. I am extremely anxious from the time I leave home until I get to work. If I hear footsteps behind me, I am afraid it’s him.”
Taguhi, 38, and her husband married in February 2014. She described frequent beatings for more than two years, including when she was pregnant in 2014. In another incident, her husband beat her and threatened her with a knife while she was holding their infant son. Taguhi frequently sought refuge at a friend’s home or with her parents, during which time her husband would threaten, stalk, and attack her. Taguhi’s husband also attacked her father and broke the window of her father’s car in 2015, she said. Although her father complained to police, they closed their investigation, saying there was a lack of evidence of a crime.
Taghuhi filed complaints with the police following many of the beatings, although several investigations were closed due to lack of evidence. In January 2016, however, a court convicted her husband of battery and torture based on a number of Taguhi’s complaints about beatings from February to April 2015. The court sentenced him to six months in prison but immediately released him on a conditional sentence. He served no prison time.
Despite his conviction, he continued to stalk her, especially at her parents’ apartment, forcing his way in, or attacking her near the building’s entrance. From February through July 2016, Taguhi filed at least eight complaints with the police. After an attack near her parents’ apartment in July 2016, Taguhi fled to the police with her mother. The police accepted her written complaint and then drove the women back to the apartment building, but refused to escort them to the door, although Taguhi told them she feared her former husband might be waiting for them.
As she and her mother approached the apartment door, Taguhi’s former husband, who had been hiding nearby, attacked the two women with an axe, killing Taguhi’s mother. Taguhi was hospitalized for six weeks, with numerous injuries, including a nearly severed shoulder, a partially severed ear, and axe wounds to her scalp, hand, arm, neck, chest, abdomen, and back. Her father, who came out of the apartment and tried to intervene, lost two fingers on his left hand. Her son, who was at home with the grandfather, watched the attack from the doorway. Taguhi’s former husband is in pretrial detention facing murder and attempted murder charges.
Taguhi herself, however, is also facing trial on battery charges for scratching her former husband’s arms and neck with her fingernails in June and early July 2016. She said that she was acting in self-defense and that her artificial fingernails could not have caused injury consistent with battery.
“As soon as I got married, when I was 18, the nightmares started,” said Zaruhi, now 30. “He drank heavily, and so did his parents. All of them would hit me sometimes.” Zaruhi’s husband controlled her, threatening to kill her. He refused to let me go out of the house or even have coffee and socialize with the neighbors, she said. “He threatened me that if I tell anyone about the beatings he would kill me, or if I tried to leave him, he would find me and kill me. I felt like I had no choice but to stay.”
Her husband also raped her and controlled her sexually. “One night he came home drunk and wanted to have sex. I said, ‘I don’t want to, don’t touch me.’ He got very angry and yelled, ‘When I want to, you will sleep with me. Even if you don’t want to, I don’t care! If I want to, you will give it to me.’” Zaruhi said he punched her in the head, knocked her down, and kicked her in the abdomen, and then raped her. “After that, even if I didn’t want to be with him, I agreed. I stayed calm, just so that he wouldn’t beat me,” she said.
Zaruhi said that one day in 2009, her husband beat her when she was about five months pregnant with her third child. She started having vaginal bleeding and went to the hospital, where doctors told her that the fetus had died in the womb.
Despite regular abuse, Zaruhi was afraid to go to the police because of her husband’s death threats and those of her mother-in-law, who said: “If you ever think of going to the police, know that we have friends in the police, and it won’t do you any good.”
After a severe beating in August 2017, Zaruhi divorced her husband and moved in with her parents. He repeatedly came to their house, beat her and threatened to take their four children. She eventually moved and went into hiding. “I just want him to leave me alone,” she said. With the support of a local women’s rights organization, Zaruhi went to the police. She has filed a complaint regarding the beating that caused the death of her baby and has sued for alimony and child support. The investigation is ongoing.
Astghik, 38, has three children. Her husband has abused her since shortly after they married in 2010. She said:
He grabs me and shakes me. He spits on me. Every day he wounds my soul. He threatens me, often with a knife, and tells my children, ‘I will kill your mother and you will end up in the orphanage.’ He forces me to have sex with him. I don’t want to. I do it with loathing. I do it just so there wouldn’t be another fight.
One time, earlier this year, he shoved a kitchen knife at me, threatening to kill me. I called the police, but when they came, they said, ‘Unless he actually hurts you, we can’t do anything.’
With the help of a lawyer at a nongovernmental organization, she filed an official complaint regarding the death threats. The investigation is ongoing. Although the two are officially divorced and Astghik is entitled to court-ordered child support, she continues to live with her abusive former husband, because he does not, and is not forced to, pay support, without which she has no income and is not able to provide shelter for herself and the children.
Hasmik said that her husband beat her for the first time soon after they married in 2004, and continued to do so regularly throughout their nine-year marriage, including during her pregnancies in 2006 and 2007. He punched her in the head when she was three months pregnant with their first child, who was born with a hearing disability. Hasmik believes her pregnancy was harmed by the abuse she suffered.
One day in 2013, Hasmik’s husband punched her in the face, broke a glass of water on her head, and beat her with a chair. “He had beaten me so badly that I lost consciousness,” she said. “I could not open my eyes, and when I did, I saw blood everywhere and on the wall.”
Her husband’s family refused to help her go to the hospital. Hasmik was bed-ridden for several weeks. Soon after she recovered, her husband resumed beating her.
After another beating later in 2013 that caused a severe injury to the side of her head, Hasmik ran away and spent the night outside in fear. She was two months pregnant. She went to her parents’ house and soon decided to have an abortion, not wanting to have another baby in her troubled family. While recovering at home, she fainted, and her family called an ambulance. When the medics saw her head injury, they insisted that she notify the police.
Police arrived from the town where Hasmik and her husband lived, but instead of assisting her, they urged her to go back to her husband. Hasmik refused, and with the support of a women’s rights group, moved to a shelter, filed a complaint against her husband for abuse, and petitioned for custody of her children. Hasmik’s former husband threatened her, saying he would never let her see their children again, unless she withdrew her police complaint.
Police failed to respond appropriately or prevent further threats and abuse during the investigation. During one witness confrontation, a procedural step in criminal investigations when the two parties must meet together with the investigator, Hasmik ’s husband shouted at her saying, “I will smash this table on your head!” When the investigator did not respond, Hasmik fled, and filed a complaint. At the next interrogation the investigator said to her, mockingly, “He didn’t actually hit you with the table. Why did you run out of here?”
Her former husband was later charged with torture, including causing physical and psychological suffering, of a person financially dependent on him (Criminal Code article 119). In December 2014, a court convicted him and sentenced him to 18 months in prison, but he was released from the courtroom under a national amnesty for certain crimes, and served no prison time. He did not further harm Hasmik, but in 2015 attacked his parents and police who responded. A trial on charges of using violence against police is ongoing.
Though a court awarded Hasmik custody of her then-6-year-old son in 2013, her husband’s family refused to give the child to her, and the regional division of the Justice Ministry’s enforcement service did not carry out the judgment. Her son finally moved in with her in November 2016 after national authorities intervened. Hasmik’s daughter had lived with her since late 2013 since her husband did not want the child because of her disability.
Karine. 44, filed a complaint against her husband in 2016, after he beat and raped her for many years, but the authorities’ response led her to abandon the process. She said:
I had to forgive my husband and go back to him. Police and municipality officials insisted that I do so, and also withdraw my complaint. They said that it’s a family matter, that my husband was [psychologically] sick, and that it was my duty to help him. Police told me that even if I pursued the complaint, it would not lead to anything, just some fine.
The Armenian government should:
- Ensure the prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation of all domestic violence cases, using methods that mitigate risks for survivors, and prosecute and punish the attackers;
- Systematically train police, judges, and other relevant authorities in domestic violence response, including filing and investigating complaints, in line with international standards;
- Ensure immediate access to protection for survivors of domestic abuse through availability of shelter spaces, including in rural areas, and short- and long-term protection orders;
- Ensure that survivors and their children have access to quality, comprehensive and inclusive medical, psychological, legal, and other services;
- Conduct campaigns to educate the public about the new law, how to file complaints, and the availability of services;
- Ensure that enforcement of the law includes victims in non-marital intimate relationships;
- Swiftly adopt relevant changes to the criminal code to ensure appropriate punishments commensurate with the gravity of the abuse;
- Revise the criminal code to include an aggravating circumstance covering crimes committed within the family or domestic unit or between former or current spouses or partners, whether or not the abuser shares or has shared the same residence with the victim, in line with the Istanbul Convention; this approach allows for the use of the generic provisions in the criminal law while imposing a higher sentence in cases of domestic violence;
- Consider addressing domestic violence as a dedicated criminal offense. This can provide an optimal response particularly in cases of abusive patterns of behavior in which isolated acts of violence do not reach the criminal threshold; and
- Ratify the Istanbul Convention without delay.