Activists organize for women's rights in Armenia
In spite of years of efforts by women’s rights advocates, Armenia, a small former Soviet republic, still doesn’t have a law criminalizing domestic violence. But staff members at the Women’s Resource Center of Armenia, the first organization of its kind in the country, aim to change that. WRCA operates out of a small upstairs office off of a main street in Yerevan, the capital city, and it does lobbying and advocacy for laws against domestic violence as well as running a hotline and crisis center and referring women to a range of services, including help with employment and health, and aid to refugees.
Lara Aharonian co-founded WRCA in 2003. Born in Beirut, she went to Canada with her family as a teenager and studied feminist literature at the University of Montreal. After graduating, she decided to go to Armenia, where her parents were from, and create a women’s collective. Aharonian started an email correspondence with a professor at the university in Yerevan, and when Aharonian moved to the capital, they began holding seminars on gender roles, sexual rights, and domestic violence to get people thinking about women’s rights.
“Armenia a homogenous society,” Aharonian said. “Women are facing rigid roles imposed on them. The society is conservative, and there are limited choices for women regarding their life and sexuality and career. If you decide to go a different way, you’re marginalized.”
These rigid ideas about gender have a real effect on women’s lives, says Elvira Meliksetyan, the media manager at WRCA. In a country where the rate of sex-selective abortion is one of the highest in the world, with about 115 boys born for every 100 girls, convincing people an issue like domestic violence matters has been a real struggle, she says.
“It’s very patriarchal and just being born, you’re discriminated against,” she said about Armenian society. “These roles lead to non-equality and to violence, where the husband has extra rights, and people think violence should be excused and women should keep silent.”
Armenia shares a border with Iran, Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Its border is closed with the last two, and relations between the countries are fraught. Along with the office in Yerevan, WRCA also operates out of Shushi, a town in Nagorno-Kharabakh, a region that’s the subject of an unresolved dispute with Azerbaijan. At the center in the countryside as well as the city, WRCA works to create more community for women and give them a place to go, with programs like No One’s Perfect, for mothers of young children, and gatherings for women to come drink coffee and share their opinions and ideas. WRCA also works with refugees from Syria and Iraq and offers free language classes, as well as ones in subjects such as computers and job training. Volunteers do outreach in the countryside as well as in Yerevan, going door-to-door, talking to people about their services and distributing pamphlets. Armenia still has no law on domestic violence, but WRCA (along with some other NGOs and human rights groups) continues to lobby for one. Attitudes have been changing slowly, Aharonian says, and more women are calling the WRCA.
“When we first started talking about these things like domestic violence, it was very much taboo,” she said. “Now we’re hearing much more about it, but many people still think domestic violence is not an important issue. It’s a very contained definition more focusing on the physical, and some people think it’s OK to be beaten up from time to time. Usually women won’t speak up when facing violence.”
Meliksetyan first came to WRCA several years ago for the free Spanish classes offered and became a volunteer before working with them full-time. Part of her work is in leading trainings for activists, and that includes getting them to take care of themselves.
“We need to remember we are human beings as well activists,” she said. “For instance, I ask them to list activities they like to do and when they did it last, and they’ve already forgotten because it’s been quite a long time. It helps them remember about their desires and wishes.”
Speaking out about women’s rights in Armenia comes with plenty of challenges. Extremist groups have called Meliksetyan and Aharonian along with others working with them enemies of the nation and destroyers of the family. A couple years ago, threats about bombing the center and slitting the throats of women there were posted on Facebook. Asked if she ever thinks of leaving the work in the face of this, Meliksetyan says no chance.
“Of course not—it’s impossible to quit,” she said. “It’s about personal responsibility. I’m doing something for my sisters and doing something for myself as well.”
More articles by Category: Feminism, Health, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Domestic violence