BY MICHAEL MENSOIAN
Zaruhi has been laid to rest, but her death has raised fundamental questions concerning human rights and gender equality of women in Armenia. It is a poor response by those who claim women are treated no differently in Armenia compared to other countries. How can we justify our probable shortcomings by citing similar shortcomings common to other countries? Doing so would set a very low standard by which to evaluate the value system and future goals of Armenia.
First, we must get over this we and you mentality. Armenia needs the diaspora and the diaspora looks to Armenia as its cultural hearth. It is a symbiotic relationship. We must operate from the premise that each of us wants the best for the other. At the least we should be able to agree that the manner in which Zaruhi died is a partial indictment of the value system in Armenia and the lack of appropriate legal safeguards.
The Armenian Penal Code does not address domestic abuse as a separate and distinct crime. Domestic assault is usually treated in accordance with Articles 105 and 112 of the Armenian Penal Code although there are gradations of “willful” acts covered by Articles 113, 114, and 117. A defendant found guilty under Article 105—”Murder in the state of strong temporary insanity”—may face imprisonment of up to four years. (Article 114 refers to a “lesser state of temporary insanity.”) Article 112, “Intentional serious or heavy damage to health,” carries a prison term of 3 to 7 years; if such action caused the death of the aggrieved, from 5 to 10 years imprisonment. (Articles 113 and 117 refer to lesser degrees of “damage to health.”) Article 104—”Murder, the illegal willful deprivation of life”—carries prison terms from 6 to 12 years (if under conditions of particular cruelty from 8 to 15 years imprisonment or for life). Articles 118 covers battery and Article 118, torture.
Domestic violence begins with a single episode, but easily evolves into a pattern of violent behavior oftentimes leading to permanent physical and psychological disabilities or death of the aggrieved. Given the prevalence and the brutality that domestic violence may encompass requires that it be treated as a separate and distinct crime. Failure to recognize this type of criminal behavior in the penal code may reflect the government’s attitude that domestic violence either doesn’t exist or is not a serious problem. Companion legislation must provide for imposing penalties and legal restraints on perpetrators and the removal from threatening situations of the abused (with her children) to safe havens. Organizations must develop programs to counsel these women as well as prepare them with skills to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
Since domestic violence is casually accepted by society, it is possible that investigative procedures and the evaluating of evidence may intentionally or unintentionally aid the accused. The testimony of key defense witnesses should be expected to reflect the societal values with respect to domestic violence, conceivably coloring their interpretation of events. This is not to say that their testimony is intentionally biased, but expressed according to the value system within which the witnesses were brought up. Would the court vigorously address this potential issue? As of now, no charges have been brought against Zaruhi’s mother-in-law or brother-in-law, both of whom were allegedly involved in the long-term violence to which Zaruhi was subjected and that ultimately ended in her brutal death.
And we should not allow Zaruhi’s two-year-old daughter Lilia to become a forgotten casualty of this domestic violence. Will she grow up in an orphanage and upon reaching 18 years of age, be released just as her mother was, without the proper life skills to effectively participate in society, condemned to repeat her mother’s unfortunate existence?
Fortunately, Zaruhi’s married sister Hasmik is her legal successor. It should be a pro forma proceeding for the court to award custody of Lilia to Hasmik (assuming she and her husband are financially able or willing). It seems that Zaruhi’s shameless mother-in-law is already concerned about the allowance that Hasmik will receive as the child’s guardian and may seek to obtain custody of the child. It is important that the existing social agencies are prepared to provide meaningful oversight with respect to Lilia’s education, health, and psychological development. This oversight should apply to all children the courts place in the custody of relatives, foster parents, or public-care institutions.
Presently there are many domestic and international organizations operating in Armenia that seek, without much success, not only to address the plight of women facing violence in all its permutations, but to assure their full equality within the system, be it economic, educational, political, social, or judicial. The Constitution of the Republic of Armenia refers to the protection of fundamental human and civil rights, and the equality of all persons before the law in their seeking employment and of husbands and wives within the marriage relationship. However, existing social mores and traditions are sufficiently strong to circumscribe the role and the rights women should enjoy in society as enunciated in the constitution. Making everyday practice conform to constitutional mandates is a formidable task that cannot be achieved without the government’s moral, legislative, and financial support.
Pragmatically, a nation’s viability and vitality—the ability to reach its full potential—cannot be achieved if women are denied unfettered equality with men. Unfortunately there is no quick-fix solution. Only a sustained comprehensive effort spanning several generations can achieve what needs to be done. And what needs to be done requires the participation of an organization that has the prestige, a can-do reputation, and a known ability to operate in politically charged situations. One organization that exists that meets these criteria and has the expertise and a proven track record of accomplishments is the Armenian Relief Society.
Since its founding in 1910, the ARS has effectively responded to every major catastrophe that has afflicted the Armenian nation. Steadfast in its mission, the ARS has provided humanitarian and educational assistance and emergency aid to all Armenians, whether in the homeland (Armenia, Artsakh, and Javakhk) or the Diaspora, with special emphasis on women and young children. Two of its signature efforts since the founding of the second free Armenian Republic in 1991 have been the state-of-the-art Women and Child Health Care and Birthing Center in Akhourian, Armenia, and the comprehensive social and educational programs embodied in the Sosseh Kindergarten System for children 3 to 6 years of age in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.
As the oldest and largest Armenian women’s organization, having recently celebrated world-wide its 100th anniversary and the culmination of a successful Centennial Fund Drive, the ARS is admirably prepared to respond to this critical issue. At stake, at the very least, is a subset of women—married and single—whose physical and psychological wellbeing has long been ignored. Granted, it will not be an easy task having to prompt President Serzh Sarkisian’s administration to do what it should and hasn’t done, while at the same time enjoying the president’s presence at certain opportune events. Positions of leadership, whether of the ARS or any other organization, carry with it the burden of having to make difficult decisions.
The creditability and prestige of the ARS will provide valuable moral support to the private and nongovernmental organizations that have a stake in this issue, as well as to the women who have been marginalized by tradition and archaic social values. There is much that needs to be done in addition to establishing safe havens for women and their children, enacting laws protecting women from abusive and predatory actions, and developing curricula materials for the schools, and sensitivity training and public awareness programs. And none of this is possible without gaining the proper legislative support, financial assistance, and goodwill of the administration.
The ARS has the ability and the resources to pursue its historic agenda in addition to operating within a network of proactive organizations through which it can offer advice, participate in cooperate projects, or facilitate the development of specific activities. Working with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s (ARF) members of parliament, legislation can be jointly proposed by concerned organizations and supported. For the ARF, the creation of a system based on economic and social equality has long been a goal for the Armenian worker. Here is an opportunity to burnish its image with various domestic women’s groups as it seeks to strengthen and broaden its political base in Armenia.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Zaruhi Petrosyan may or may not be unique. How many or how few women have suffered a similar tragedy is not known. However, Zaruhi’s death is sufficient to call attention to the known inequities that do exist and the difficulties that impede the efforts of various organizations that seek to address the range of human rights and gender issues confronting Armenian women.
Working to improve the position of women in Armenian society would be in keeping with the spirit that inspired the founding of the Armenian Relief Society and that has guided its efforts during the past hundred years to improve the human condition of Armenians wherever they may be.
Note: The writer has provided excerpts from relevant articles from the Nov. 27, 2005 Constitution of the Republic of Armenia. Article 3: “The State shall ensure the protection of fundamental human and civil rights.” Article 14.1: “Everyone shall be equal before the law.” Article 32: “Everyone shall have the freedom to choose his/her own occupation.” Article 35: The family is the natural and fundamental cell of the society… husband and wife] are entitled to equal rights, as to marriage, during marriage, and divorce.
The manner in which Zaruhi died is a partial indictment of the value system in Armenia and the lack of appropriate legal safeguards.