Law against domestic violence in Armenia: between necessity and compromises



The law against domestic violence was a necessity for the Justice Minister, David Harutyunyan, but the negative public outcry and the pressure of the conservative wing of the ruling party, forced the minister to redevelop its draft law on preventing domestic violence. As a result, it is not anymore a law against domestic violence, but a mechanism of family reconciliation. The new title of the law is now as follows: "Preventing violence in the family, protecting the victims of violence in the family and restoring harmony in the family".

Yet this law could mean real change.

Domestic violence is a burden on numerous sectors of the social system and affects the development of a nation. What begins as an assault by one person on another reverberates through the family and the community. Domestic violence is not incidental. It is a global issue reaching across national boundaries as well as socio-economic, cultural or class distinctions. Violence against women or gender violence is a social, economic, legal, human rights and health issue.

WHY IS VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN A HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATION?

Democratic states have a responsibility to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of all their citizens. Therefore states must ensure that they have taken all reasonable measures to prevent, investigate and punish all forms of violence based on gender or against women. We can be only shocked to hear or to read that this law is attacking "traditional Armenian values" or undermining the Armenian family.

What do we mean by "traditional values"? Does it mean that Armenian women have been made to adopt contradictory roles? On the one hand, the traditional roles of nurturance as daughters, wives or mothers and, on the other hand, the stereotype of the weak woman? But are we really sure that is Armenian traditional values?

Legislation by itself would not suffice because gender violence is a deep-rooted social problem. But legislation is necessary and essential. Overcoming the public/private divide remains of very high importance to women. In the case of domestic violence this divide holds great implications for women. The sphere of domesticity is deemed to be outside the scope of legal regulations and state interventions. This means that family could be a place of unregulated violence against women.

It is time to develop a fuller understanding of this problem on the part of those in authority, in order to make this law effective.

For the detractors of this law, the "traditional family" is seen as a bastion of civilization and a condition for social stability and hence is immune to judicial reform. Now, the male character of the Armenian Judiciary necessarily questions the quality of the justice dispensed in case of domestic violence against women. The law represents a major component of the social fabric and underlying mechanism for attaining gender equality.

During the last years civil society organisations, as well as international organizations have called for the adoption of a separate law on domestic violence. The outstanding fact is the diaspora's engagement to this cause to allow changing cultural ands social norms that support violence. These norms are highly influential in shaping individual behavior, including the use of violence.

CULTURAL ACCEPTANCE OF VIOLENCE IS A RISK FOR ENTIRE SOCIETY

Cultural acceptance of violence is a risk factor for all types of interpersonal relationships. Laws and policies that make violent behavior an offense send a message to society. It is almost an attack on Armenian culture that violence against women could be accepted, occasionally glorified. It is clear that strong notions such as west /east or today western/non western continue to create new tensions around what the term domestic violence means even in Armenia. But the debate around this law starkly highlights domestic violence as a significant public policy issue of transnational character. In Armenia as in other post communist countries, the recent emergence of domestic violence as subject of social movement activism is highlighting problems of conceptualization. With implications on the meaning of masculinity and femininity.

Traditions, Armenian traditional values are the most prevalent justifications to convince the justice minister to make the changes to this legislation. Violence or gender violence was never required by our traditions, but certainly the process of acknowledging domestic violence is particularly complex and challenging.

What is so challenging about naming and dealing with violence among partners for a state? Certainly the fact that considering domestic violence as a crime challenges also the legitimacy of established power relations both within intimate relationships and also in the context of a state.

It is certainly time to work also with men to prevent gender violence to deconstruct the trivialization of domestic violence against women. Masculinity does not have to be presented as inherently problematic or oppressive, but it is essential that interventions with individual men should focus on male privileges that stem from the patriarchal social order and change in practices and beliefs of men.

Such work will be slow because it needs multi-level interventions that seek to enable and facilitate sustainable changes, including changes in social norms. The earlier version of the law was providing this possibility.

Of course we have to take into account the context of Armenia: patriarchy, conflict and transition. The vacuum that remained after the fall of communism, violence during the war against Azerbaijan, the high unemployment rates for example. But there is one thing that we must be aware of: none of these factors could justify the use of violence or human rights violations. But the relationships between these factors and how men over articulate their dominance and stereotypical behavior over women should be considered in order to work with them. Once again the earlier version of the law was providing this possibility.

It was a chance for a young democracy still marked by party thinking, nepotism and dominant power structures along political lines to demonstrate its commitment to democratize its own decision-making bodies.

Gender transformative approaches have been identified as key to reduce gender-based violence. It is important to examine how gender is tied to societal tolerance of violence and norms around masculinity. A man's lack of attainment of social power in spheres as work, community, etc. influences his social entitlement and use or non-use of violence and domestic violence. Working with perpetrators was also a possibility with the earlier law.

LACK OF LEGAL PROTECTION

The matter with the new "family reconciliation" law is that repeated acts of violence against the same person are not specifically criminalized. So the justice system considers violence committed in a public place a greater social danger than the same actions committed within a family against relatives.

The stereotype of a woman that primarily is a mother is enforced in the ex-communist societies, as in Russia. These discriminatory sentiments and practices are easily maintainable in an environment where gender equality and women's human rights issues are rejected and considered to be matters of alien ideology and foreign influence both by the state and the general public.

The low numbers of reactions within civil society, or the violent reactions, are quite surprising. It seems that the understanding of civil society on the part of average citizens and the authorities can relate to their vision and experiences of public activities in the soviet period when public activism meant either close cooperation with the state or being a dissident. This kind of reaction implies lack of trust towards civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs, and sometimes fear and as result scarce involvement of community members in civil society activities. So it seems that when NGOs are focused in the areas of supporting people with disabilities, children or orphans, everything seems perfect. It is because these types of activities are in a way obvious in terms of what are the vulnerable groups and do not require any extra defining of personal views and values.

So what kind of shared values are we talking about? And what kind of justice are we talking about? It seems that what we are talking about is closer to former Soviet Union traditions that to Armenian traditions.

We need to build all together, women and men, here and there on the courageous pioneering work of many Armenian women over this decade and continue to develop cultural and social norms that reject violence and discriminations.


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