The Women’s Support Center Helps Victims of Domestic Violence in Armenia.
BY NANE AVAGYAN
Translated by Aleen Arslanian
Domestic violence is on the agenda in Armenia. “To fight against domestic violence, a systemic approach is needed. It includes systematic work by coordinating the efforts of state bodies and community services,” said Maro Matosian, the founder and director of Armenia’s Women’s Support Center. Founded with the support of diaspora organizations, this non-governmental organization has been engaged in the prevention of domestic violence and providing assistance to victims of violence for more than ten years. Matosian discussed the successes, challenges, and future plans of the organization in an interview with Asbarez.
Nane Avagyan: How and when was the Women’s Support Center founded?
Maro Matosian: The organization was launched in Los Angeles in 2010. A fundraiser was held here [in Los Angeles] and the issue of domestic violence received a great response. We were also lucky to have the support of Marie Yovanovitch, who was the U.S. ambassador to Armenia at that time and very interested in women’s issues. We also had the support of the USAID, the Armenian International Women’s Association, and the Tufenkian Foundation. We started our work in Armenia with the cooperation of these organizations. We were then joined by the John and Hasmik Mgrdichian Foundation and in 2012 we opened the first shelter, creating a safe environment for abused women and children, as well as providing them with various support and counseling. When we started, we only had forty beneficiaries, but when they found out about us, they started contacting our hotline and the number of beneficiaries reached to about 400 a year. In 2019, we opened the second shelter, thanks to a donation by the San Francisco chapter of the AIWA, in front of Srbuk Sargsyan.
N.A.: What was your initial experience in Armenia like?
M.M.: When we first started operating, our main problem was that the topic of domestic violence—including sexual assaults against women and violence against children and the elderly—was taboo in Armenia, because these topics were not discussed during the Soviet years. The society was not ready: they were neither aware of the real problems, nor ready to solve them, because there were no relevant specialists, for example, social workers or psychologists. There was not even a law that would condemn and provide protection to the victims of violence, and no preventive measures were taken. Society refused to accept the problems, and even the government said that we were exaggerating. In 2012 and 2013, we managed to make a breakthrough when we made a lot of noise about two serious incidents. We spoke to media outlets and a number of public organizations and broke through the atmosphere of silence. The media then began to regularly cover various cases of domestic violence.
N.A.: What kind of incidents or cases are we talking about?
M.M.: Mostly, there were cases of physical violence: the husband or the mother-in-law, or both simultaneously, against the daughter-in-law. There were also cases against the elderly, when the caregiver, for example, the child, subjects his father to violence by taking his pension, or throws him out in order to take possession of the house. In one incident, we were stoned for “destroying families and opposing traditional values,” but I don’t think that it is in the Armenian tradition that you should subject your parents, children, or wife to violence. This is what the public should understand and take steps to resolve, because prevention is not only possible through the law or through police force, it is also possible through the approach of the public. If society tolerates such an attitude, it is difficult to fight against it. When we say that the culprit is the abuser, and not the victim, we emphasize this, because very often when we go to court the judge turns to the victim, asking, “What did you do to be abused?” In other words, that question in itself is an accusation against the victim. We even had a case where a woman was stabbed and killed in front of two young girls, and the murderous husband justified his actions in court by saying that his wife was cheating on him with a Turk, without presenting any facts. In that case too, the judge asked the murdered girl’s daughters if they were not ashamed of their mother’s actions, and there was no mention of the murderer. In other words, society gives men the benefit of the doubt. We are fighting against this.
N.A.: What services does the Women’s Support Center offer?
M.M.: Operating in order to prevent and respond to domestic violence, the Women’s Support Center carries out activities in three directions. First, we support the beneficiaries by providing comprehensive assistance from social workers, providing psychologists and lawyers to children and adults, as well as providing them with a shelter. The second direction is training, informing social workers, police officers, journalists, teachers, and other groups of society about what domestic violence is. Police and social workers are the first line of assistance to victims of violence, and professional training helps them really understand the impact of violence on the victim. For example, initially, a person subjected to violence often has a hard time discussing exactly what happened, and the first responder must be able to differentiate, make appropriate inquiries, create an environment for the beneficiary to express themselves calmly and receive support accordingly. For this purpose, we also hold various conferences, seminars, and give interviews to the media. The third area of our activity is advocacy, which is an internationally accepted model. We believe that if institutional changes are not implemented, laws are not improved, methodology is not applied, and all the work remains only on the shoulders of non-governmental organizations, it becomes almost impossible to move forward. The state should have regulatory mechanisms (toolkits), but unfortunately, there are not many appropriately trained specialists in this field in Armenia today.
At the same time, we cooperate with non-governmental organizations in different regions who want to deal with domestic violence issues, we train them, and today there is one support center in each region. The number of our beneficiaries increased after the information about the support centers was spread. There were regions in Armenia, for example Yeghegnadzor, where we have not had a beneficiary for years, and when we turned to the police, they said that the population is small and maybe there are no cases of violence. However, when the support center was established there, applications began coming in. In other words, if women have no way out or do not know what to do in these instances, the law thinks that there is no violence. We have also created a coalition of non-governmental organizations dealing with issues of domestic violence.
N.A.: How do you support the beneficiaries under your care in planning for their future?
M.M.: After assessing each case, we understand which group of beneficiaries are most at risk and offer them shelter. There are those who agree stay with us for two to three months, during which we help them with legal issues and psychological counseling. In addition to the fact that the beneficiaries are rehabilitated with us and use the services provided by the center, women acquire various skills and specializations and we help them find a job, which ensures financial independence and security for their children.
N.A.: In 2017, the National Assembly of Armenia adopted a law on “Prevention of domestic violence, protection of persons subjected to family violence and restoration of family solidarity.” How would you rate its effectiveness?
M.M.: We actually participated in the development of the mentioned law, in partnership with a number of other organizations. We had been fighting to have a new law implemented for years. We presented a draft, and Armenia finally accepted it within the framework of the agreement with the European Union. Although it was not perfect, we felt that it was necessary to start somewhere, and it was a good start. We considered the biggest problem of the law to be that violence is not criminalized, and that means the punishment is only an administrative penalty. For example, we had a case of severe violence: a woman with five children was subjected to violence for fifteen years, and the sentence set for her husband was only 150 thousand drams [less than $400]. The abuser also declared in court that the fine would not be a problem for him, and claimed that he would resort to violence again if he deemed it necessary. In other words, that impunity—not holding the perpetrator accountable—is a message to society that his actions is acceptable. They tell me that there is domestic violence everywhere, and I counter that, in countries where the law is strict, where the abuser is held accountable, the number of violence cases decreases. Another rule that we consider unacceptable encourages the victim to return to the abuser and refers to reconciliation, which is also not possible according to international law, because you cannot reconcile a couple that has unequal power dynamics.
N.A.: Currently, work is underway to amend the law. Are you participating in this process?
M.M.: We are working towards law reforms, and the first thing we insist on is that domestic violence is criminalized. We also added a point about psychological violence, which always goes hand in hand with physical violence. In the definition of a victim of domestic violence, we proposed to include the category “partner,” that is, when people are not married, but are in a relationship and subjected to violence. The law should also specify stalking as a controlling behavior. These are the events that are not addressed in the law, but support centers regularly encounter such cases.
Also, we consider the issue of urgent intervention to be important: the abuser should be removed from the house for at least twenty days, and he should not have the right to approach the victim. In the near future, a citizen who has been subjected to violence in the family will have an alarm device with them, and the abuser will wear an electronic bracelet or an ankle monitor. Through these devices, the police will clearly record whether the abuser violates the ban and comes near the victim. Regarding our proposals, we work closely with the Ministry of Social Security, members of parliament, and lawyers. There is a lot of resistance against us, because we put forward ideas that are not in the public culture, and it is very difficult to change those stereotypes or to get our ideas across.
N.A.: Do you receive any kind of support from the government?
M.M.: After 2018, the situation in terms of dialogue with state bodies has changed, it has become easier. The government adopted the western model, so public organizations are more flexible, have daily contact with the beneficiaries, and in this respect the state can trust and lean on the organizations. At the same time, it is financially beneficial. Instead of creating special bodies dealing with the problem, the state partners with non-governmental organizations and subsidizes them to an extent, which proves that the state assumes responsibility in this matter. Since 2018, we have been included in the All-Armenian Fund program, within the framework of which the government asked us to train support centers.
N.A.: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?
M.M.: There is no excuse for violence, and we as a society should strive to become more tolerant towards each other. In my opinion, the main reason for domestic violence is inequality—the privileged status of men. The self-esteem of most of the women who apply to our centers is very low, they feel that they are not suitable for anything, they have no value, they feel guilty, which is a consequence of years of physical and psychological violence. About forty percent of them have suicidal thoughts, of which thirteen percent have attempted suicide once or twice.
The Women’s Support Center creates conditions for the victims of violence to recover, again find their place in society, and start living anew. Since we began operating, we have helped about two thousand women, who they later became our ambassadors and helped other women and families. Today, the organization is considered one of the best local expert groups in Armenia, and the European Council considers us to be the only organization that provides such services. For all this, we should thank our Diaspora Armenians who helped to establish and organize the Women’s Support Center. I urge our compatriots in the Diaspora to continue supporting us, because the shelters operate through donations, which can be made through our website.