While many countries celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, Armenia kicked off a whole month dedicate to honoring women. It continues through April 7 – the Day of Motherhood and Beauty. Throughout the month, family members, friends and partners shower women with flowers, perfume and other gifts – so much so that the price of flowers significantly increases around this time of year.
Amid the gifts, too often Armenians forget to acknowledge women’s human rights, and to make sure they are respected. But I will never forget Hasmik, whose husband would buy her gifts. He would also beat her regularly throughout their nine-year marriage, including during her two pregnancies. Hasmik was one of 12 women who shared their stories with my colleague and me in December for a Human Rights Watch report on domestic violence in Armenia.
The women told us that their husbands or male partners had 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. They also described a weak response by authorities, who were either unwilling or unable to protect women and children from the violence.
One day in 2013, Hasmik told us, “He beat me so badly that I lost consciousness. I could not open my eyes, and when I did, I saw blood everywhere and on the wall.” After a beating later in 2013 that caused a severe head injury, Hasmik ran away. Police investigated the violence, 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, and petitioned for custody of her children.
Police failed to respond appropriately or prevent further threats even during the investigation. During an investigative procedure, Hasmik’s husband threatened her, shouting, “I will smash this table on your head!” The investigator did not respond, so she left the police station. At the next interrogation the investigator said, “He didn’t actually hit you with the table. Why did you run out of here?”
In 2014, a court convicted Hasmik’s former husband on charges of torture of a person financially dependent on him and sentenced him to 18 months in prison. But he was immediately released under a national amnesty for certain crimes, and served no prison time.
Recently Armenian authorities have taken important steps toward preventing violence in the family and protecting survivors of domestic abuse. In December, parliament adopted a law on domestic violence. In January, Armenia signed the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention), a landmark treaty that requires measures to prevent violence against women, ensure protection and services for survivors, and combat impunity for those responsible.
In February the prime minister signed an action plan for the new domestic violence law, which includes compiling centralized data on domestic violence, developing regulations for shelters, and creating a governmental Council on Preventing Violence in the Family. Also in February, a police official said that police were developing training guidelines for using restraining orders and other measures that could protect women from domestic violence.
These long overdue steps followed decades of advocacy by Armenian women’s rights activists. However, adopting a law is not enough. The authorities need to break the culture of impunity for violence against women.
The government now has a real chance to make a difference. It needs to ensure that the new domestic violence law is fully enforced, the action plan is carried out, and that women can get the protection and help they need. And it should promptly ratify the Istanbul Convention without reservations. Then women in Armenia will really have something to celebrate.